Analyzing a child's voice may someday be a way to screen children for autism, according to a new study.
"What the study does is apply a technology that is capable of identifying sound differences in children's speech," says Steve Warren, a behavioral psychologist at the University of Kansas and one of the study's authors.
Researchers developed a new method for using an automated voice analysis system called LENA, which appears to pick out voice patterns of children with language disorders related to autism and language delay.
Researchers gave 232 children a small device with a very tiny microphone that fit in the pocket of a child's clothing and could record everything the child said all day long. The recordings were then downloaded into a computer to be analyzed by the automated system. The children in the study were between the ages of 10 months and 4 years old. 77 of these children were known to have autism.
Researchers found the machine accurately separated the voice patterns of typically developing children from children with autism and children with a language delay. Warren is quick to point out that this study is only a proof of concept and that a lot more research needs to be done.
"We have a system that could potentially be a way to screen for autism and language delay – potentially well before diagnosis," says Warren.
He emphasizes that this new algorithm or method for voice analysis is not a screening tool for autism – yet. Warren says more studies involving children who are younger and where researchers know nothing about their development still have to be conducted.
But if this system proves to be accurate in larger studies, it may have a large impact on how children are screened for autism and language delays – even in other countries, says Warren.
He explains that generally all humans are born with the same vocal system. And this automated system doesn't test languages but voice patterns, like how a baby may utter the sound "wah."
"One could imagine using this [technique] in low-resource countries where they may not have professionals who can detect a language delay," says Dr. Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends screening children for autism at 18 and 24 months because early detection can lead to early intervention. With intense behavioral therapy at an early age, some children with autism can show significant improvements.Researchers hope if further study of this voice analysis system validates the study's results, it could help parents and pediatricians identify children with autism even earlier.
The study was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS