Clues to autism language troubles

    Philadelphia researchers say delays in processing sound may explain speech troubles among children with autism.

    New research from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia may help doctors understand the speech delays that are common among school-age children with autism.

    headphonesListen: [audio:sci20081205autism.mp3]

    Get the mp3 »

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor



    During the study an imaging device detected bursts of electrical activity to record brain waves. The participants listened to a series of sounds beginning with short tones, vowels and simple beeps.

    Then we changed the frequency of the beep to something like a boop. We may play beeps in rapid succession, beep, beep.

    Lead researcher Tim Roberts says the children with autism processed those sounds a fraction of a second slower than other children. Roberts says tiny delays accumulate and can cascade into problems with understanding speech, especially considering that a syllable lasts only about a quarter of a second.

    So if you hear the word elephant, it might be that the child is still working on the ‘ele’ when we’ve moved on to the ‘phant’ and there’s really no way of catching up.

    Roberts also tracked the brain’s reaction to loudness and pitch changes in the human voice.

    In this particular example we play a stream of sounds like ah, ah, ah, and intersperse and ‘ou.’

    He says the brain response seems to be impaired in children with autism. This delay in processing sound may be a bio-marker or signature of some kinds of autism, which Roberts says, could eventually be used to tailor better treatments.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal