Nick is now 13 and lives full-time in a residential facility dedicated to kids with autism -- his challenges are that severe. To this day, we wonder how much further along Nick would be today if it had been as clear to his doctor as it was to us that something was seriously wrong, and we had gotten him diagnosed at 18 months rather than at two and a half. With autism, the earlier the intervention, the greater the chances for lessening the often devastating impact of this little-understood disorder.
Now, as scientists report in a new study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 19, a new technology that analyzes vocalizations in very young children offers hope of early screening of kids like Nick for autism, as well as for typical children who suffer from a language delay.
With parents' permission, the team placed all-day recording devices weighing less than three ounces in specially designed pockets in their child's clothing. The child then went about his or her daily life at home. Beginning in 2006, the team made nearly 1,500 recordings of 232 children, totaling over three million individual utterances. The technology is able to distinguish a child's vocalizations from those of her parents and siblings, TVs and other background noises, even the child's own cries and gut rumbles.
Previous studies had indicated that children with autism have a strikingly different vocal signature than typically developing children. But the technology was not in place to analyze massive acoustic datasets automatically and parse various parameters that could reveal those differing signatures. Besides showing potential for enhancing basic research into linguistic development, the new technology, known as LENA (for Language ENvironment Analysis), offers proof of concept that this kind of analysis can now be done, with promise for earlier detection.
"This technology could help pediatricians screen children for ASD [autism spectrum disorders] to determine if a referral to a specialist for a full diagnosis is required and get those children into earlier and more effective treatments," says Steven F. Warren, a coauthor of the PNAS paper, in a news release put out by his affiliation, the University of Kansas.
If the technology becomes widely available, parents of toddlers who show signs like my wife and I observed in Nick back in 1998 will be most grateful.
(To learn more of Nick's story, click here and go to the earliest dated entry, "All About My Son." Also feel free to share your own story about autism or other disorders on the spectrum.)