Informative audio: In addition to diagnosing autism, the LENA software can be used to track language development. The software can, for example, automatically evaluate a child’s vocalizations, determine the number of adult words the child hears, and display the number of conversations between parent and child.
Richards says the LENABaby software, which he helped develop, starts by breaking down the 16-hour audio stream into segments. Each segment is automatically classified according to the type of sound contained in the clip, such as sounds from the child, a parent, or television. Vocalizations from the child are then assessed further using complex algorithms that look at a variety of factors, such as the phonological composition of the each sound and how sounds are clustered and paired. “We’re simultaneously looking across many dimensions at the same time,” says Richards. Using LENA’s database of previously analyzed audio, the software considers how these characteristics compare to those of children developing normally, children with delayed language development, and autistic children.
While the level of accuracy achieved by LENABaby is high, researchers at the foundation are investigating ways of making the tool even better at diagnosing children. The team is also adapting the tool for use with younger children.
LENABaby can be used for more than a basic diagnosis, helping to track a child’s language development. This could make it a valuable tool for clinicians who otherwise have to rely on data collected during brief, infrequent visits.
LENABaby wasn’t designed to replace clinicians entirely, Gilkerson says, but it does provide “a naturalistic observational component” to an assessment. “Up until now, clinicians had no idea what was going on in the home environment,” Gilkerson says. Analyzing verbal interactions between parent and child could also help clinicians guide parents toward better learning strategies.
Gilkerson says researchers from dozens of universities have already used the tool to conduct their own studies on other issues too, such as the impact of television exposure on child development. “The LENA system can go far beyond this particular application of autism screening,” says Xu. “There’s tremendous opportunity for a lot of different applications in psychology research and language behavior research.”