Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Can autism really be detected by voice alone?

The Lena Foundation, whose new autism-screening tool hit the market in September, claims that parents who use the Lena System are now able to determine with 91 percent accuracy whether their child is developing normally, has autism, or has unassociated language delays.

The home kit, which includes a digital audio recorder, an outfit to hold the recorder, and a questionnaire about the child's development thus far, costs $699. The foundation, which develops technology for the screening of several types of language delays and disorders, says the kit works for children as young as 24 months.

"Roughly speaking, autistic children vocalize differently from other children," Dongxin Xu, manager of software and language engineering at the Lena Foundation, tells MIT's Technology Review.

Analyzing a child's vocal patterns to screen for autism isn't new. The three factors that seem to set the Lena System apart from traditional screening methods are portability (the recording device is small); amount of data (16-hour recordings); and the software Lena uses to analyze the recordings parents mail in dutifully each month.

According to Jeffrey Richards, a statistician and database technician for the Lena Foundation, the software first categorizes the 16-hour audio stream into sound types, such as child, parent, or television. The child clips are then further dissected, and analyzed for the phonological composition of each sound, as well as how it is clustered and paired. The resulting data is then compared with the data compiled on children who are considered normal, autistic, or delayed.

The 91 percent accuracy is high, and while Lena researchers continue to fine-tune their software to push that rate even higher, I remain somewhat skeptical that voice alone can determine whether a child is autistic. It is often suggested that Einstein didn't speak until he was at least 3, if not 4 or 5; I have to wonder how a 16-hour recording of Einstein at 24 months would be interpreted by Lena software.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Stimulus money beefs up special ed programs

Federal stimulus money is helping to give a voice to students like 7-year-old Peter Bernay.

The Clear Creek school district is spending part of its $6.7 million in special education stimulus money to buy voice-output devices, which allow Bernay and other students to better participate in class. The device speaks messages typed by the first-grader, whose speech has been delayed by Down syndrome.

“He loves it. His friends love it,” said his mother, Anne Bernay. “It's going to really help them to understand him and understand what he was going to say. He's a really smart little kiddo, and he has so many ideas in his head he just can't get out.”

School districts have until 5 p.m. today to apply for part of the $945.6 million, Texas' share of $12 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for school-age children served under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. This part of the stimulus plan infuses much-needed money into one of the costliest and most strained areas of education, parents and educators said.
Will it be used wisely?

Some are skeptical, though, about whether the dollars will trickle down to students with special needs.

“I hope the football program appreciates it,” quipped Houston resident Michelle Guppy, who has a son with autism. “I don't think it will be spent as it's intended. I think it will go toward things and not education. I'd like to see receipts of the teacher trainings it's paid for, the raises for the special education teachers it has provided for.”

Nearly 470,000 students — about 10 percent of Texas' public school population — receive special education services.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for special education, and we hope the outcome is improved results for students with disabilities,” said Kathy Clayton, senior director of the division of IDEA coordination for the Texas Education Agency.

Every district is eligible for a share, the size of which depends on population and poverty levels. Some cash-strapped districts admit they are using part of the money to avoid cutting existing special education services.

North Forest ISD, for example, will spend part of its $1.8 million to maintain positions.

“Stimulus money will be used to save and add jobs to the special education staff,” said spokeswoman Anitra Brown, adding that money will also be spent to train teachers, purchase materials and buy technology.

Humble ISD officials spent the summer planning how to spend the district's $6.2 million.

“The major push is to improve academics,” spokeswoman Karen Collier said.

In addition to buying technology, Clear Creek is creating 32 new positions, including eight elementary school teachers and two autism specialists. They're hopeful the school district will be able to absorb the costs when the federal money dries up in two years.

“I wish we had more funding, but that's OK. We covered everything we truly really needed,” assistant superintendent Irene Fellows said.
HISD's approach

Others, such as the Houston Independent School District, were reluctant to use the money to create recurring annual expenses like salaries. Each HISD campus will decide how to spend its own allocation, with the district's larger high schools receiving in the neighborhood of $200,000, officials said.

Most of the district's $42.4 million will be spent on training and instructional programs.

“Since this is one-time funding we wanted to get the biggest bang for our buck,” said Carolyn Guess, assistant superintendent of special education.

Part of HISD's money will be spent to hire an employee that will help special needs students transition into the work force. The specialist will work with major companies to place graduates in higher-level jobs.

Another person will be hired to help place preschoolers with special needs into mainstream daycare programs. Math and reading specialists will also be hired, Guess said.

Houston ISD is prepared to account for every federal dollar, Guess added.

“We want to do very, very well with it,” she said. “We want to do what's right for children.”

By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Sept. 7, 2009, 9:08PM