How Smartphones Could Screen Kids for Language, Speech Disorders

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While early intervention is crucial for children with speech and language disorders, many kids go undiagnosed until later in life. But that may soon change.

Researchers at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute of Health Professions are developing a low-cost system that screens children for speech and language disorders using easily accessible tools.

Kids are presented with a standardized story—a series of images and accompanying narrative—and asked to retell the tale in their own words. The program then analyzes audio recordings of their performances. The idea, according to MIT professor John Guttag, senior author of the study, is to be able to conduct fully automated screenings using things like smartphones or tablets—and perhaps produce better diagnoses.

"I think this opens up the possibility of low-cost screening for large numbers of children, and I think that if we could do that, it would be a great boon to society," Guttag said.

He and graduate student Jen Gong built the system using machine learning to sift through data collected by Jordan Green and Tiffany Hogan, researchers at the MGH Institute of Health Professions. The program was trained on three different tasks: identify any impairment (speech or language), identify language impairments, and identify speech impairments.

While speech and language afflictions are rooted in the brain, they affect different neural pathways: Speech disorders alter motor pathways, while language disorders disturb cognitive and linguistic pathways.

"Better diagnostic tools are needed to help clinicians with their assessments," said Green, a speech-language pathologist. "Assessing children's speech is particularly challenging because of high levels of variation. … You get five clinicians in the room and you might get five different answers."

Still in the early stages of experimentation, the team is "nowhere near finished with this work," according to Guttag, who called this "sort of a preliminary study," but "a pretty convincing" one.

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