New Link Discovered Between Sensory Aspects of Speech and Language Issues in Autism
It is common knowledge that people with autism often have difficulties interpreting the speech of others. Recent research offers some insights into why that is the case while opening the avenue for more research into the other effects of this development.
Part of the issue seems to be in reading non-verbal sensory cues on the face, such as the movement of the speaker’s eyes and mouth. Namely, children with autism tend to not pay attention to those cues.
Even when standing in front of someone while having a discussion, not all communication is verbal in nature. While you talk, your mouth moves, your face moves, and your eyes move. These are all connected so saying the same words in the same tone of voice will communicate different different things depending on your facial expression.
As an aside, this is part of why misinterpretations seem to happen more often on the internet than in person. Distilling communication down to just words removes inflection, tone, and non-verbal factors.
These facial movements are known as sensory cues and help the listener to be more involved and understanding of what is being discussed. This means that sight and sound are integrated when it comes to communication.
Nonverbal communication and autism
Children with autism spectrum disorder, however, have difficulty with this integration. They often focus on just the verbal part of the communication and pay little attention to the non-verbal side of things.
This may negatively impact their ability to learn language. This inattention manifests itself from a young age which, since learning language is a process, compounds the difficulty of learning to communicate with neurotypical individuals.
This is what Giulia Righi, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, researched. She, along with Elena J. Tenenbaum, Carolyn McCormick, Megan Blossom, Dima Amso, and Stephen J. Sheinkopf wrote up their research in a paper titled Sensitivity to audio-visual synchrony and its relation to language abilities in children with and without ASD. It was published in Autism Research.
Children with autism often do not pay attention to nonverbal sensory cues, while neurotypical children do pay attention. How much does this attention affect their ability to learn language?
That is the question asked by Righi. She said, “There are underlying mechanisms that bring about these sets of skills that then translate into language learning. We really need to understand from a mechanistic view how these abilities come about.”
What Righi and her fellow researchers did was use asynchronized verbal and non-verbal communication to talk to children then test their language skills afterward.
Read on to learn more about the results of this study and what it tells us about language and autism.