As if they were watching a badly dubbed foreign movie, some children with autism appear to have trouble processing sight and sound simultaneously, according to a small study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience.
The findings suggest that problems in basic sensory processing may hamper the development of social and communication skills in children with autism.
“Sensory processing challenges are common in individuals with autism spectrum disorder,” comments Daniel Smith, Autism Speaks senior director for discovery neuroscience. “Studies like this help define the nature of sensory issues associated with autism and their effects on communication and daily functioning.” Such understanding, in turn, could improve behavioral interventions, including speech therapy. Dr. Smith was not involved in the research.
The study, out of Nashville’s Vanderbilt Brain Institute, enrolled 64 children ages 6 to 18. Half had autism without intellectual disability or other severe impairment. The researchers matched the two groups in age, gender and IQ.
The children worked through a series of computer-generated audiovisual prompts such as flashes and beeps, a hammer hitting a nail and speech. Their task was to press a button when sight and sound occurred at the same time.
Analysis showed that the children with autism were significantly less precise than the typically developing children when discriminating simultaneous versus out-of-sync audiovisual cues. This difference became most pronounced with cues involving speech.
“If we can fix this deficit in early sensory function, then maybe we can see benefits in language and communication and social interactions," says lead study author Mark Wallace. Dr. Wallace is director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute. The affiliated Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is part of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.
Autism-Speaks research on sensory integration therapy
Dr. Wallace’s hopes are in line with the encouraging results of a recent Autism Speaks-funded study on sensory integration therapy. It found that sensory integration therapy, as practiced by occupational therapists, improves daily function in children with autism.
Sensory challenges are also among the core symptoms added to the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the most recent revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5).