Screening speech may aid autism diagnosis: study

Mon Jul 19, 2010 3:44pm EDT
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By Emma Ashburn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A device may be able to automatically screen young children for autism based on how they talk, U.S. researchers said on Monday.

The small recorder fits into a child's pocket and analyzes the words the child says during the day, and a software program evaluates how the child makes certain sounds.

A team of researchers led by Kimbrough Oller of the University of Memphis analyzed more than 3 million syllabic utterances, collected from almost 1,500 all-day recordings from 232 children aged 10 months to 4 years.

The program correctly identified an existing autism diagnosis 86 percent of the time. The analysis also predicted the age of a typically developing child, said the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Although clinicians have been saying for many years that they think that autistic kids sound strange when they talk, there's been no practical way to use vocalization as a part of the diagnostic or screening procedure in working with autism," said Oller, professor of audiology and speech-language pathology.

Oller identified the speech patterns the device analyzes and helped develop the screening method.

The tests were conducted in English, but Oller said the technique may apply to other languages. "It hasn't actually been tried yet, but there's every reason to think it should," he said.

Doctors now diagnose autism by testing children for a range of behavioral and speech issues including how much they talk by a certain age and whether they make eye contact with other people.   Continued...