Children with forms of autism that allow them to still function at high levels appear to outgrow a critical disability in social communication skills as early as their teen years, new research suggests.
Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University found many autistic children who have trouble understanding visual cues and sounds associated with speech — a hallmark of the disorder — overcome that disability as they mature and the problem sometimes clears up entirely in adolescence.
The study, published online in the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggests the underlying causes of at least some of autism's classic anti-social symptoms may not be permanent or set in stone neurologically.
"This is an extremely hopeful finding," said lead author John Foxe, a professor of pediatrics and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and 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 do something to help them recover sooner."
Foxe said 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," he said.
Past studies have shown children with autism spectrum disorder integrate sound, touch, and vision differently from typical children. But Foxe's research found one aspect of that ability — integrating audio and visual speech signals — continues to develop in high-functioning children with autism as they age.
For the study, researchers tested 222 children, ages 5 to 17 — including both typically developing children and high-functioning children with autism — for how well they could understand speech with increasing levels of background noise.
The results showed younger children with autism, ages 6 to 12, performed much worse than the typically developing kids of the same age, particularly with higher levels of background noise. But among the teens, there was no difference between the typically developing children and those with autism.
"In adolescence, something amazing happens and the kids with ASD begin to perform like the typically developing kids," said 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. That is something we need to explore."
He added that the work highlights the need to develop more effective therapies to help autistic children better integrate audio and visual speech signals.
"We are beginning to work on that," said Foxe.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health.
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