“You’ll grow out of it” is not something that any child wants to hear, but for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) this may become a legitimate piece of advice. Research from Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine has found that high functioning children with ASD “grow out of” problems with integrating auditory and visual speech information once they enter adolescence.

Previous work by the same research team revealed that children with ASD integrate multisensory information differently than neurotypical children. Building on that evidence, this study specifically examined how audio and visual speech signals are integrated by children and adolescents with ASD. The 22 children aged five to 17 went through a series of three tests designed to evaluate their integrative abilities by using various levels of background noise. In the first test, the researchers played audio recordings of simple words. In the second, they played a video with no audio of a speaker articulating words. The third test mimicked the “cocktail effect,” playing both audio and video.

The results from the first test (audio only) showed nearly equal performance between the ASD and neurotypical groups across all ages and background noise levels. For the second test (video only), the ASD children did slightly worse than the neurotypical group across all ages and background noise levels. Finally, in the third test (both audio and video), the children aged six to 12 with ASD performed much worse than their neurotypical peers, especially with higher background noise levels. However, there was no discrepancy between the ASD and neurotypical groups among the older children.

The researchers explain that something amazing happens in the brain once children with ASD hit adolescence. Although they do not know exactly what happens, the findings indicate the need for therapies that help children with ASD integrate audio and visual speech signals.

The results were characterized as “extremely hopeful” by lead author John Foxe, Ph.D. and professor of pediatrics at the Department of Neuroscience and director of research of the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center. He explained that the research “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.”

This research is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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