More than half a million children under age 15 has a severe communication disorder impairing their ability to speak or communicate with others. Now, advances in technology are giving them a voice, some for the first time.
When Shannon Ward came into the world three months early, her mom knew she’d be special.
“She was always just aware, alert, and watching,” said Janine Blythe, Shannon’s mom.
However, while her mind was active, physically Shannon’s development was delayed. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Shannon couldn’t speak.
“She would vocalize for you, squeal with delight, but she could not say, mom or dad,” Blythe said.
“I think everyone deserves to be heard,” Shannon said.
The adult robotic voice doesn’t match Shannon’s age or personality.
“There are not really a lot of choices for these kids,” Blythe said.
That’s why Tim Bunnell and his team at Nemours are working to give kids like Shannon a voice of their own for the first time.
“We take recordings of natural speech, chop them up into very small pieces, and then paste them back together again in novel ways,” explained Dr. Tim Bunnell, Principal Research Scientist and Director, Center for Pediatric Auditory and Speech Sciences, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
For those who can’t speak words, the focus is on vowel-like sounds.
“Perceptually we are tuned to listen to the vowels to understand the vocal identity of a person,” Bunnell said. “For Shannon, it was as sound like ‘Ahh.’”
Characteristics of those sounds, such as the child’s pitch and voice quality, are recorded and blended with a donor child’s voice to build a new voice.
“I really like my new voice. I think everyone deserves to be heard and it feels great to have a voice that matches who I am,” Shannon said.
The technology used to create a new voice for children like Shannon with cerebral palsy was originally developed for voice banking—so that those with Lou Gehrig’s disease can save their voices for later use.
In the next three-to-five years the technology will be able to actually calculate the child’s voice as they age—so their voice will grow along with the child.
A communication disorder is an impairment in the ability to receive, send, processed, and comprehend concepts or verbal, nonverbal, and graphic symbol systems. A communication disorder range in severity from mild to profound and it can be evident in the processes of hearing, language, and speech. Approximately 14 million Americans have a speech, voice, or language disorder. Speech and language disorders can result from hearing loss, birth-related conditions, a learning disability, or physical conditions. The disorder may result in stuttering, problems with articulation, voice disorders, or aphasia. People with severe speech and language disorders may be nonspeaking. (Source:accesspress.org/2003/12/assistive-technology-for-communication-impairments/ and asha.org/policy/RP1993-00208/)
AAC: One common type of adaptation used by nonverbal and non-comprehensive speakers is an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system. This type of assistive technology refers to aids, strategies, and techniques designed to enhance a person’s existing communication skills. These AAC systems may be laminated paper with pictures or words, electronic devices capable of adaptive access and voice-to-output, or computer based systems with vocal synthesis. AAC is often used to refer to formal communication devices like sign language, communication boards or voice output communication aids (VOCAs), but it can include less sophisticated means of communication including facial expressions, non-speech vocalizations, idiosyncratic gestures, etc. There are a number of congenital and acquired neurological and neuromuscular impairments that can cause an inability to speak and require patients to use assistive communication devices. They include cerebral palsy, autism, developmental apraxia of speech, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury, among others. (Source: accesspress.org/2003/12/assistive-technology-for-communication-impairments/ and Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children press release)