Language delays are often a sign of autism. Using vocal recordings may help identify autism in infants at an earlier age.
Researchers have developed a new technology that uses vocal recordings to help identify autism spectrum disorder or language delay in children as young as 10 months old, according to a new study published online July 19, 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Conducted jointly by researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Memphis, the study looked at the effectiveness of a battery-powered device that attaches to children's clothing to record utterances and words with minimal intrusion.
Known as the LENA (Language Environment Analysis) system, researchers collected nearly 1,500 recordings of 232 children aged 10 months to 4 years who expressed more than three million syllables. Based on previous research that found autistic children tend not to follow typical pronunciation patterns, researchers were able to identify autism correctly 86 percent of the time solely from an analysis of how children formed syllables.
Although differences in speech (or lack of it) of children with autism spectrum disorders has been examined by researchers and clinicians for more than 20 years, vocal characteristics are not included in standard criteria for diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders, says Steven F. Warren, professor of applied behavioral science and vice provost for research at the University of Kansas, who contributed to the study.
"A small number of studies had previously suggested that children with autism have a markedly different vocal signature, but until now, we have been held back from using this knowledge in clinical applications by the lack of measurement technology," says Warren.
Language may be a new clue in the autism puzzle, but according to researchers, it's not the final answer. "Autism is a multi-factoral disorder and it has many behavioral dimensions to consider. And vocalization is clearly an important one," says Kimbrough Oller, professor of audiology and speech-language pathology and the study's lead author (via AOL Health). "But I certainly don't think it should be used exclusively," she adds.
Current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) call for all children to be screened for autism twice by age 2. According to the AAP, some signs parents can watch for at home include babies not babbling by 9 months, 1-year-olds who don't point to toys, and lack of eye contact.