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KEENE, NH – A Keene State professor has been granted a US patent for an app created to improve communication for people with autism.
The patent was presented in April to Lawrence Welkowitz, chair of the college’s psychology department.
SpeechMatch, which Welkowitz created with British musician Robert Taub, provides immediate visual feedback for matching important speech patterns, including volume, pitch and rhythm.
The app became available for download on Apple and Google Play devices two years ago, and has taken years to develop.
The idea grew out of Welkowitz’s long-term observations of autistic people’s conversational speech patterns and how they may differ from other people off the spectrum.
“People on the spectrum are mistakenly thought to be unempathetic and uninterested in what other people are saying, but the truth is that their brains don’t tune into certain speech patterns,” said said Welkowitz, who has studied autism spectrum disorders since the late 1990s.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurological and developmental disorders that affect “the way people interact with others, communicate, learn and behave,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. According to a 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than five million American adults are estimated to have autism spectrum disorder. The CDC Autism and Developmental Disabilities Surveillance Network estimates that 1 in 44 American children has an ASD, based on 2018 data.
Feedback provided by SpeechMatch can allow app users to communicate more effectively and “shape the way they shape their speech in a way that is more acceptable to most people,” Welkowitz said.
For example, someone on the spectrum can use it to decipher and match appropriate speech volumes, he explained.
The app includes a built-in library of more than 100 phrases that vary in emotional content, like happy, sad, sarcastic, funny, and “pleasant and unpleasant surprise,” Welkowitz said. App users can also save and use their own custom phrases.
An app user will hear the selected phrase and see its generated sound wave. Once they say the phrase, a sound wave will provide an immediate percentage match of patterns such as volume and pitch.
Taub is no stranger to audio processing software. He helped start a company that developed the algorithms later sold for use in the popular video game Guitar Hero, according to Welkowitz.
“Human communication is critically important to all of us…It’s very exciting to be involved in building a platform that helps people communicate more fully,” said Taub, director of music at the Arts Institute of the University of Plymouth in England, in a Keene State press release about the patent.
Welkowitz said it was Taub’s experience developing music matching algorithms that led him to contact him to create SpeechMatch.
The app was the basis of research funded by NH-INBRE (Innovative Biomedical Research Excellence) through Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the National Institute of Health (NIH) that evaluated SpeechMatch’s ability to help people with autism improve their conversational speech, according to the release. NH-INBRE distributes NIH funds to colleges statewide to fund research projects.
SpeechMatch has been successful, showing “that people with autism can improve in terms of speech adaptation,” Welkowitz said, based on clinical trials and testimonials from those who have experience with speech. application, either themselves or through a loved one.
Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said his patients have found SpeechMatch helpful, according to a testimonial on the app’s website.
“After years of development and study, I am impressed that SpeechMatch has come out of the research lab and is now available for public use as a viable clinical tool,” Hollander’s quote reads.
Although the main function of the app is to improve communication for people with autism, it can also serve other purposes. For example, someone recovering from a stroke can use SpeechMatch to help regain speech, Welkowitz said.
“It’s been a 10-year odyssey,” he said of the app. “It’s been my heart and soul for over 10 years.”
SpeechMatch is available for free download from the Apple and Google Play app stores. More information can be found at www.speechmatch.com.
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