New Way To Diagnose Children With Language Barriers Early

A new study, led by researcher John Guttag at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, has developed a computer that helps analyze children with language and speech disorders for an early-childhood intervention to avoid difficulties later on with life.

They say at least 60% of children are diagnosed after kindergarten or later and this causes problems for them in their social life and in school. The researchers hope to change that with affirming that early detection of these problems can help them to be solved in due time.

John Guttag built a new system using machine learning with the help of Jen Gong. Both of them being electrical engineers. Their system uses artificial intelligence to pick up patterns and cues from speech to diagnose speech and language disorders.

The data for analysis was provided by two researchers at MGN Institute of Health Professions, Jordan Green and Tiffany Hogan, who had hypothesized that pauses in speech as the children think hard and long to find words to produce a sentence is a source of useful diagnostic data.

Green is a speech-language pathologist and says, “Better diagnostic tools are needed to help clinicians with their assessments. Assessing children’s speech is particularly challenging because of high levels of variation even among typically developing children. You get five clinicians in the room and you might get five different answers.”

To get to the bottom of the solution, John and Jen fed the system with a set of 13 acoustic features by analyzing audio recordings of children with speech and language barriers on a standardized storytelling test in which the children were told a story with images and asked to repeat the story in their own words. The system then analyzed the audio recordings by seeking patterns in the speech such as length, number, irregularity of pauses and continuous expressions.

The system analyzed the audio recordings by using a measuring standard called area under the curve which in this case differentiated between children with the disorders and those without. The computer yielded values between 0.74 and 0.86. In medicine, area under the curve with a value of 0.7 is considered useful enough.

John says, “We’re nowhere near finished with this work. This is sort of a preliminary study. But I think it’s a pretty convincing feasibility study.” He adds, “The really exciting idea here is to be able to do screening in a fully automated way using very simplistic tools. You could imagine the storytelling task being totally done with a tablet or a phone. I think this opens up the possibility of low-cost screening for a large number of children.”

Speech and language disorders are due to problems in motor controls and a deviation of neurological pathways from a normal brain structure. The children whose storytelling performance was recorded were identified as suffering from a language impairment. The computer system was programmed to identify three things: recognizing any language or speech disorder, recognizing language disorder and recognizing speech disorder.

However, one problem the researchers had to face was that the age range of children with developing disorders was narrower than that of children with disorders. Because language impairments are rare, the researchers had to select children outside the age range to collect data.

The Factors That Cause Problems

When it comes to academics, a study points out that difficulties in coping with mathematics indicates problems in the procedural memory in the brain which is associated with learning and memory which lead to dyslexia and language disorder.

The study indicates that math skills are linked with automatic responses during math problems and some disorder in the procedural memory can be an indication of low math skills which is seen in dyslexic children or those with language disorder.

Many reasons have been given before to explain math disability, such as defects in spatial short-term memory which causes difficulties in handling numbers. Both reading and language are also dependent on declarative and procedural memory.

Other Steps That Can Help Mentally Challenged Children

As far as intervention goes, studies have shown that specific movements and exercises can help autistic children cope with their problems if they are started at an early age as autistic children have poor motor skills. Some 80% of them struggle with coordinated movements such as kicking a ball or tying shoes. They require a lot of care, often complete 40 hours of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) per week while some require constant help from therapists.

A professor from Canada, Meghann Lloyd, points out that exercise has been proven to help children with autism and may have more benefits than autism therapies do.

But instead of exercises, as the professor notes, most parents want their child to sit still in class, be obedient and behave like a good kid, something extremely daunting for an autistic child.

Because of the social awkwardness, autistic teenagers stay out of sports in school and are hesitant to engage with others.

Many studies have proven that as well as improving motor skills, specific movement exercises can also increase social bonding and behavior and help the child to walk and run.

Exercises may improve cognition in autistic children but the type of exercise which can help them varies. For example, some children had a better attention span after jogging while some had the same benefits only after cycling. Even a small amount of exercise can improve attention span and concentration in studies.

Hearing goes hand in hand with understanding language, and speech is directly dependent on hearing in the early years of a child. A school in India for hearing impaired children says that a child learns to speak when they pick up sounds from the environment and try to produce it again.

They say that when a three-year-old baby starts to look around when its name is called, it is a clear indication of some hearing problem and hearing loss can be identified within two days of birth.

According to the director of the school, assistance before the child reaches the age of three can help him acquire verbal and social skills.

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