How a baby's babbling can help identify autism

By Daily Mail Reporter
UPDATED: 10:41 AEDT, 21 July 2010

Babies with autism can be identified by listening to the noises they make, scientists have discovered. Research has shown that the babbling of infants with the disorder is not the same as that of children without. Scientists were able to use automated vocal analysis technology to spot the differences with 86 per cent accuracy. The system was also able to single out very young children with impaired language development.

Professor Steven Warren, an expert in autism spectrum disorders at the University of Kansas, US, who took part in the study, said: 'This technology could help paediatricians screen children for ASD (autism spectrum disorder) to determine if a referral to a specialist for a full diagnosis is required and get those children into earlier and more effective treatments.'

Autism is the name given to a group, or 'spectrum', of lifelong developmental conditions characterised by an inability to communicate with or relate to others, a lack of social skills, obsessional traits, and repetitive behaviour.

An estimated 500,000 people in the UK are believed to be affected by autism.

The US scientists analysed nearly 1,500 day-long vocal soundtracks from battery-powered recorders attached to the clothing of 232 children aged 10 months to 4 years.

In total more than three million individual child utterances were used in the research, reported today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study focused on 12 specific sound parameters associated with vocal development.

The most important were those involving 'syllabification' - the ability of children to produce well-formed syllables with rapid movements of the jaw and tongue.

Experts believe these sounds form the foundation of words.

In autistic children up to four years old, there was a mismatch between the expected parameter values and age.

Vocal characteristics are not currently used for diagnosing autism, even though the link has been suggested before.

'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,' said Prof Warren.

The new system, called Lena (Language Environment Analysis) could make a big difference to the screening, assessment and treatment of autism, say the researchers.

They point out that since the analysis is based on sound patterns rather than words, it could be used to screen speakers of any language for signs of autism.

'The physics of human speech are the same in all people as far as we know,' said Prof Warren.

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