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Audition-specific temporal processing deficits associated with language function in children with autism spectrum disorder

Jennifer H Foss-Feig, Kimberly B Schauder, Alexandra P Key, Mark T Wallace, Wendy L Stone
Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research 2017, 10 (11): 1845-1856
28632303

Sensory processing alterations are highly prevalent in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Neurobiologically-based theories of ASD propose that abnormalities in the processing of temporal aspects of sensory input could underlie core symptoms of ASD. For example, rapid auditory temporal processing is critical for speech perception, and language difficulties are central to the social communication deficits defining the disorder. This study assessed visual and auditory temporal processing abilities and tested their relation to core ASD symptoms. 53 children (26 ASD, 27 TD) completed visual and auditory psychophysical gap detection tasks to measure gap detection thresholds (i.e., the minimum interval between sequential stimuli needed for individuals to perceive an interruption between the stimuli) in each domain. Children were also administered standardized language assessments such that the relation between individual differences in auditory gap detection thresholds and degree of language and communication difficulties among children with ASD could be assessed. Children with ASD had substantially higher auditory gap detection thresholds compared to children with TD, and auditory gap detection thresholds were correlated significantly with several measures of language processing in this population. No group differences were observed in the visual temporal processing. Results indicate a domain-specific impairment in rapid auditory temporal processing in ASD that is associated with greater difficulties in language processing. Findings provide qualified support for temporal processing theories of ASD and highlight the need for future research testing the nature, extent, and universality of auditory temporal processing deficits in this population. Autism Res 2017, 10: 1845-1856. © 2017 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

LAY SUMMARY: Sensory symptoms are common in ASD. Temporal processing alterations are often implicated, but understudied. The ability to process rapid sensory information, particularly auditory input, is critical for language functioning. This study tested auditory and visual temporal processing in ASD and controls. Findings suggest that rapid auditory (but not visual) processing is impaired in ASD and related to language functioning. These results could provide mechanistic clues to understanding core symptoms and lead to novel intervention targets.

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