Giving Voice to Vulnerable Children: Machine Learning Analysis of Speech Detects Anxiety and Depression in Early Childhood
Childhood anxiety and depression often go undiagnosed. If left untreated these conditions, collectively known as internalizing disorders, are associated with long-term negative outcomes including substance abuse and increased risk for suicide. This paper presents a new approach for identifying young children with internalizing disorders using a 3-min speech task. We show that machine learning analysis of audio data from the task can be used to identify children with an internalizing disorder with 80% accuracy (54% sensitivity, 93% specificity). The speech features most discriminative of internalizing disorder are analyzed in detail, showing that affected children exhibit especially low-pitch voices, with repeatable speech inflections and content, and high-pitched response to surprising stimuli relative to controls. This new tool is shown to outperform clinical thresholds on parent-reported child symptoms, which identify children with an internalizing disorder with lower accuracy (67–77% versus 80%), and similar specificity (85–100% versus 93%), and sensitivity (0–58% versus 54%) in this sample. These results point toward the future use of this approach for screening children for internalizing disorders so that interventions can be deployed when they have the highest chance for long-term success.