Autistic children can outgrow difficulty understanding visual cues and sounds

August 28, 2013

Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have shown that high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children appear to outgrow a critical social communication disability. Younger children with ASD have trouble integrating the auditory and visual cues associated with speech, but the researchers found that the problem clears up in adolescence. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Cerebral Cortex.

"This is an extremely hopeful finding," said lead author John Foxe, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, as well as director of research of the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Einstein. "It suggests that the neurophysiological circuits for speech in these children aren't fundamentally broken and that we might be able to do something to help them recover sooner."

According to Dr. Foxe, the ability to integrate "heard" and "seen" speech signals is crucial to effective communication. "Children who don't appropriately develop this capacity have trouble navigating educational and ," he said.

In a previous study, Dr. Foxe and his colleagues demonstrated that children with ASD integrate multisensory information such as sound, touch and vision differently from typically developing children. Among typically developing children, multisensory integration (MSI) abilities were known to continue improving late into childhood. The current study looked at whether one aspect of MSI—integrating audio and visual speech signals—continues to develop in high-functioning children with ASD as well.

The video will load shortly
Dr. John Foxe has shown that high-functioning autism spectrum disorder children appear to outgrow a critical social communication disability. The paper was published online Aug. 28, 2013, in Cerebral Cortex. Dr. Foxe is professor of pediatrics in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, as well as director of research of the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Credit: Albert Einstein College of Medicine

In the study, 222 children ages 5 to 17, including both typically developing children and high-functioning children with ASD, were tested for how well they could understand speech with increasing levels of background noise. In one test, the researchers played of simple words. In a second test, the researchers played a video of the speaker articulating the words, but no audio. A third test presented the children with both the audio and video recordings.

The test mimics the so-called "cocktail party" effect: a noisy environment with many different people talking. In such settings, people naturally rely on both auditory and facial clues to understand what another person is saying. "You get a surprisingly big boost out of lip-reading, compared with hearing alone," said Dr. Foxe. "It's an integrative process."

In the first test (audio alone), the children with ASD performed almost as well as typically developing children across all age groups and all background noise levels. In the second test (video alone), the children with ASD performed significantly worse than the typically developing children across all age groups and all background noise levels. "But the typically developing children didn't perform very well, either," said Dr. Foxe. "Most people are fairly terrible at lip-reading."

In the third test (audio and video), the younger children with ASD, ages 6 to 12, performed much worse than the typically developing children of the same age, particularly at higher levels of . However, among the older children, there was no difference in performance between the typically developing and children with ASD.

"In adolescence, something amazing happens and the kids with ASD begin to perform like the typically developing kids," said Dr. Foxe. "At this point, we can't explain why. It may be a function of a physiological change in their brain or of interventions they've received, or both. That is something we need to explore."

The researchers acknowledge some limitations to their study. "Instead of doing a cross-sectional study like this, where we tested children at various ages, we would prefer to do a longitudinal study that would involve the same kids who'd be followed over the years from childhood through adolescence," Dr. Foxe said. "We also need to find a way to study what is happening with low- and mid-functioning children with ASD. They are much less tolerant of testing and thus harder to study."

According to the researchers, the work highlights the need to develop more effective therapies to help ASD better integrate audio and visual speech signals. "We are beginning to work on that," said Dr. Foxe.

Explore further: Children and teens with autism more likely to become preoccupied with video games

More information: The paper is titled "Severe Multisensory Speech Integration Deficits in High-Functioning School-Aged Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their Resolution during Early Adolescence."

Related Stories

Children and teens with autism more likely to become preoccupied with video games

April 17, 2013
Children and teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) use screen-based media, such as television and video games, more often than their typically developing peers and are more likely to develop problematic video game habits, ...

Study shows delays in siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders

May 16, 2012
A new University of Miami (UM) study shows that one in three children who have an older sibling with an Autism Related Disorder (ASD) fall into a group characterized by higher levels of autism-related behaviors or lower levels ...

Eye-tracking reveals variability in successful social strategies for children with autism

February 27, 2012
In a study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Katherine Rice and colleagues, from the Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory ...

Nearly one-third of children with autism also have ADHD

June 5, 2013
In a study of the co-occurrence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in early school-age children (four to eight years old), researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute found ...

UK children less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD

August 28, 2013
New research suggests that children are far less likely to be diagnosed with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the UK than they are in the USA. However, the same study, led by the University of Exeter Medical ...

Recommended for you

Late-breaking mutations may play an important role in autism

July 17, 2017
A study of nearly 6,000 families, combining three genetic sequencing technologies, finds that mutations that occur after conception play an important role in autism. A team led by investigators at Boston Children's Hospital ...

Females with autism show greater difficulty with day-to-day tasks than male counterparts

July 14, 2017
Women and girls with autism may face greater challenges with real world planning, organization and other daily living skills, according to a study published in the journal Autism Research.

Researchers investigate possible link between carnitine deficiency and autism

July 13, 2017
Researchers are always looking for new clues to the causes of autism, with special emphasis on prevention or treatment. At Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Arthur Beaudet has been following clinical and genetic clues in patients ...

How children look at mom's face is influenced by genetic factors and altered in autism

July 12, 2017
New research has uncovered compelling evidence that genetics plays a major role in how children look at the world and whether they have a preference for gazing at people's eyes and faces or at objects.

Oxytocin improves social abilities in some kids with autism, study finds

July 10, 2017
Children with autism showed improved social behavior when treated with oxytocin, a hormone linked to social abilities, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Children with low ...

Possible early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

June 29, 2017
Measuring a set of proteins in the blood may enable earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study from the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.