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U of M-led Project Is Named One of "Top 10 Autism Research Achievements" of 2010

For release: February 7, 2011
For press information, contact Curt Guenther, 901-678-2843

Autism Speaks, the largest North American autism advocacy and science organization, has named as one of the top 10 autism research achievements in 2010 the discovery that children with autism have a unique vocal signature.

Dr. D. Kimbrough Oller
Dr. D. Kimbrough Oller
The study of pre-verbal children’s vocalizations was led by Dr. D. Kimbrough Oller, professor and chair of excellence in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Memphis.  It was published in the July 27, 2010, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 

Using a new technology for recording and automated assessment, called LENA (Language ENvironment Analysis), the researchers analyzed multiple characteristics of vocalizations from thousands of hours of recordings of children in their natural environments.

The system correctly identified children with autism spectrum disorder diagnoses with 86 percent accuracy.  The system also differentiated typically developing children and children with autism from children with language delay, based on the automated vocal analysis.

The researchers analyzed 1,486 all-day recordings from 232 children (more than 3.1 million automatically identified child utterances) through an algorithm based on 12 acoustic parameters important in vocal development, as indicated in Oller’s research over a 35-year period. The most important of these parameters proved to be the ones targeting syllabification, the ability of children to produce well-formed syllables with rapid movements of the jaw and tongue during vocalization. Infants show voluntary control of syllabification and voice in the first months of life and refine this skill as they acquire language.

Autism Speaks cited the potential for the portable, easy-to-use technology as an objective early-screening and diagnosis tool for physicians to use in examining children. The organization also suggested that LENA could assist speech-language professionals in predicting very young children’s later language development to guide them in the type and timing of therapeutic interventions.

Oller said the research shows that a new era of investigation is now underway, wherein “massive recording samples can be assessed by totally objective means to estimate children’s vocal development level and also to estimate their risk for important disorders.”

More information about the research is available from Dr. Kimbrough Oller via email at koller@memphis.edu or by phone 901-678-5800.

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