When they reach adolescence, children with high functioning autism show significant improvement in social communication skills, according to a study published August 28. Researchers, from Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, report that adolescents with high functioning autism were able to “integrate seen and heard speech” to the same extent as their typically developing peers.
“This is an extremely hopeful finding,” said lead author John Foxe, Ph.D. “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.”
At this time, Foxe and his colleagues do not know the cause of the improvement in this aspect of multisensory integration. He hopes that additional research following young children with autism through to adolescence may provide the basis for this improvement.
Foxe also commented that children’s ability to integrate what they hear and see is a critical skill. “Children who don’t appropriately develop this capacity have trouble navigating educational and social settings,” he said.
Multisensory integration refers to the processing of information from different senses. It is how the brain coordinates and merges the information people see, hear, smell, touch and taste. According to Autism Speaks, sensory issues are common in children with autism. In addition to having problems integrating information from their senses, some children with autism are overly sensitive to stimuli while others may be under sensitive. For example, in overly sensitive children everyday sights and sounds are overwhelming. Under sensitive children may not feel pain that other neurotypical children would.
Current study details
This study involved 222 children between the ages of 5 and 17. The group included 84 children with high functioning autism and 142 typically developing children. Researchers exposed the children to three different situations to assess their “multisensory speech integration ability.” In the first test, an audio tape was played. A video of a speaker with no audio was played for the second test. In the third test, both audio and video recordings were played for the children. In all of the tests, varying levels of background noise were played.
Children with autism performed almost as well as their typically developing peers in the first test involving audio alone. The performance of the children with autism in the second test, involving only video, was “significantly worse” than their peers who did not have autism.
The results of the third test, involving both audio and video, were mixed. The younger children with autism performed much worse when compared with their typically developing peers. The older children with autism however, performed as well as their neurotypical peers.
In a study published in 2010, Foxe and his colleagues looked for proof of multisensory integration problems in children with autism. At the time, there were anecdotal and clinical reports of sensory problems in children with autism, but no empirical data.
Using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings, the scientists measured responses to multisensory stimulation in children with and without autism. They concluded that children with autism process multisensory information differently than their neurotypical peers. Foxe stated that the results showed children with autism “didn’t integrate it (sensory data) as effectively as they should have, given their age and maturity.”
The current study, “Severe Multisensory Speech Integration Deficits in High-Functioning School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Their Resolution During Early Adolescence” appears in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
The 2010 study, “Multisensory processing in children with autism: high-density electrical mapping of auditory-somatosensory integration" was published in Autism Research.
More information on the current study is available on the website of Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
More information on autism is available from the Mayo Clinic.
More information on sensory processing and autism is available from the SPD Foundation.