WILMINGTON, Del. – 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.
Shannon Ward came into the world three months early to take it all in.
“She was always just aware, alert, and watching,” Janine Blythe, Shannon’s mom, said.
But 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.
At age nine, technology helped her communicate. As a teen, she wants more.
“I think everyone deserves to be heard,” Shannon said.
But an 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 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,” Dr. Tim Bunnell with Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.
For those who can’t speak words, vowel-like sounds are key.
“Perceptually we are tuned to listen to the vowels to understand the vocal identity of a person,” Dr. 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.
“My name is Shannon. 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.
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.