Sight, Sound Out of Sync in Kids With Autism Says Study

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Boy_with_Autism-bannerThe new diagnostic term “autism spectrum disorder” doesn’t reflect how devastating it can be for parents to have children limited in their ability to communicate and show affection, but it does reflect how little is still known about the condition that affects roughly 2 percent of children in the United States.

Doctors have made great strides in accurately describing and diagnosing autism, but its causes remain opaque. A recent Vanderbilt University offers neurological findings that help explain for the disorder’s seemingly disparate symptoms.

The study, published in January in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that children with autism have a broader window of time than normal children during which their brains process two distinct sensory stimuli as aspects of the same event. The window exists to allow the brain to connect stimuli, for example the sound of the sight of the same action, arriving at slightly different times. In autistic children, that window is much longer, leaving room for confusion.

Stephen Camarata — a hearing and speech scientist at Vanderbilt University who co-authored the study with Vanderbilt neuroscientist Mark Wallace — likened their experiences to “watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed.”

“The auditory and visual signals do not match in their brains,” Camarata explained.

What’s more, the study found, that longer windows corresponded to greater difficulties processing speech. The finding suggests that the neurological anomaly might cause speech challenges and other anti-social behaviors that autistic individuals typically exhibit.

“Impairments in multisensory processing may cascade into higher-level deficits, impairing day-to-day functioning on tasks,” the study concluded.

The information on how autistic people experience the world may lead to new ways for parents and other caregivers to interact with and treat autistic individuals.

For instance, when an autistic person covers their ears, it may be an attempt to block out stimuli that are especially distracting because they are being flagged as relevant to a previous event.

“I’ve gotten emails from families that say ‘This is so helpful to help me understand what’s going on with my son, when he looks at me and then looks away,’” Camarata told Singularity Hub.

Autism-stacking-cans-featParents often understand these behaviors as a heartbreaking lack of interest, when the study hints the child may be trying to process what the parent has just said, similar to the way a non-autistic person might turn away from a conversation to do a math calculation, according to Camarata.

Early interventions into how autistic children process speech and other sensory stimuli could, over time, ease the social challenges those with autism spectrum disorder face, the researchers noted.

“If we can fix this deficit in early sensory function then maybe we can see benefits in language and communication and social interactions,” lead author Wallace said in a news release.

Fortunately, doctors have also been finding new ways to diagnose autism earlier and earlier with brain scans on toddlers and, in one experimental research project, through the analysis of a newborn’s placenta.

Photos: Scott Vaughan via Wikimedia Commons, Andwhatsnext via Wikimedia Commons

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • Tathar January 22, 2014 on 1:24 pm

    While I appreciate the research done to improve the lives of autistic people, the name change for the diagnosis is supposed to help reduce the spread of this idea that autism is always “devastating” or that it’s only a childhood disorder. Neither of those are true for everyone with autism. This negative view of autism ignores the strengths that autistic people have over allistic (non-autistic) people in a number of increasingly important areas.

    That said, I’d really like an app that can read facial expressions for me. It’s mentally exhausting to try to figure them out on my own.

  • James Harris January 23, 2014 on 4:48 am

    This is a really interesting article, but I would like to point out the non-scientific use of the term ”anti-social” in the article. Anti-social personality disorder is a synonym for the older clinical term “psychopath.” It is a separate condition from Autism Spectrum Disorder and describes people who are incapable of feeling empathy towards other people (Ex: Ted Bundy, the main character in “Dexter,” Christian Bale’s character in “American Psycho”). People diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder may be “unsociable,” but calling them anti-social is insulting and inaccurate.

    • Tathar James Harris January 23, 2014 on 8:22 am

      I missed that one, but you’re absolutely right. Still, I can’t get mad at Singularity Hub for this, since it appears as though the author of this article picked up the terminology from autism “support” groups that actually serve to put down autistic people as burdensome or tragic. Unless you have a personal experience to tell you otherwise, that kind of viewpoint may be the only one you ever heard regarding autism.

    • Tathar James Harris January 23, 2014 on 8:47 am

      While I’m at it, I should explain the difference between affective and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is the ability to respond appropriately to others’ mental states. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand others’ mental states. It’s the latter that autistic people have problems with. If we know what someone else is feeling, we have no problem responding appropriately to that. However, we generally don’t know what other people are feeling, unless we are specifically taught what to look for.

      As for unsociable behavior, that’s pretty much because social encounters are mentally tiring events for us. We have to put that much more effort into decoding the body language that other people use, and it leaves us mentally exhausted. Personally, three hours of social encounters in a day are enough to make me forget everything that happened that day.

  • jonnyhilly February 5, 2014 on 3:15 pm

    I would like to know if the “sound out of sync” or other sensory input, has a demonstratable delay, for example did they use brain scan to show event X takes, .1 second in a regular brain, but .8 in autistic ?
    If there is any kind of consistent measurable delay, then there might possibly be tech-enhanced treatments.
    For example… devices that deliberately delay audio or visual inputs so they arrive at the same time in the brain. Possibly with easy adjustable delay to suit various patients.

    Another idea.. how about blocking off one sense, allowing communication focusing on another. noise cancelling headphones, while concentrating on pictures/ faces/lip-reading etc… have experiments like this been done ?