Einstein scientists have shown that high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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 last August in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
“This is an extremely hopeful finding,” says lead author John J. Foxe, Ph.D. ’99, a 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 help them recover sooner.”
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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 social settings,” says Dr. Foxe.
In a previous study, Dr. Foxe and his colleagues showed that children with ASD integrate multisensory information such as sound and vision differently from typically developing children. Among typically developing children, multisensory integration (MSI) abilities were known to continue improving late into childhood. This 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.
In the study, 222 children ages 5 to 17, including both typically developing children and high-functioning children with ASD, were tested for their ability to understand speech with increasing levels of background noise. For the older children, there was no difference in performance between the typically developing children and those with ASD.
“In adolescence, something amazing happens and the kids with ASD begin to perform like the typically developing kids,” says 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. We need to explore that.”