Some Autistic Children Outgrow Communication Difficulties
Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) received some welcome news last month. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York reported that some higher-functioning ASD patients outgrow a social communication disability that’s a critical stumbling block towards progress. ASD is characterized by problems integrating sensory input, which typically manifests as difficult communicating with others. Specifically, younger ASD children often have difficulty processing the auditory and visual cues that accompany speech.
But according to lead author, John Foxe Ph.D., the problem often resolves during adolescence. “This is...extremely hopeful...,” said Foxe. “It suggests that the neurophysiological circuits for speech...aren’t fundamentally broken, and that we might be able to do something to help them recover sooner.” It may be challenging for “normal” people to relate to something that we take for granted, but the ability to integrate “seen” and “heard” signals during speech is fundamental to clear communication. Without this ability, kids have difficulty interacting in social settings, including classrooms.
The study immersed subjects in a “cocktail party” type setting, where noise comes from all directions and visual cues become more important when attempting to focus on a particular speaker. In these types of settings, normal people rely heavily on the integration of both auditory and facial cues to facilitate understanding. This seems to help screen out distractions. With higher levels of background noise, it was increasingly difficult for young children with ASD to follow a conversation. But adolescents with ASD did just as well as “normal” teens in that situation. Dr. Foxe described this age-related change as “amazing,” but he admitted scientists don’t know yet why it occurs. “[It] is something we need to explore.”
Foxe J, Molholm S, Del Bene VA, et al. Severe Multisensory Speech Integration Deficits in High-Functioning School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Their Resolution During Early Adolescence. Cereb. Cortex, 2013 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bht213