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Exploring Motor Speech Disorders in Low and Minimally Verbal Autistic Individuals: An Auditory-Perceptual Analysis.

PURPOSE: Motor deficits are widely documented among autistic individuals, and speech characteristics consistent with a motor speech disorder have been reported in prior literature. We conducted an auditory-perceptual analysis of speech production skills in low and minimally verbal autistic individuals as a step toward clarifying the nature of speech production impairments in this population and the potential link between oromotor functioning and language development.

METHOD: Fifty-four low or minimally verbal autistic individuals aged 4-18 years were video-recorded performing nonspeech oromotor tasks and producing phonemes, syllables, and words in imitation. Three trained speech-language pathologists provided auditory perceptual ratings of 11 speech features reflecting speech subsystem performance and overall speech production ability. The presence, attributes, and severity of signs of oromotor dysfunction were analyzed, as were relative performance on nonspeech and speech tasks and correlations between perceptual speech features and language skills.

RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Our findings provide evidence of a motor speech disorder in this population, characterized by perceptual speech features including reduced intelligibility, decreased consonant and vowel precision, and impairments of speech coordination and consistency. Speech deficits were more associated with articulation than with other speech subsystems. Speech production was more impaired than nonspeech oromotor abilities in a subgroup of the sample. Oromotor deficits were significantly associated with expressive and receptive language skills. Findings are interpreted in the context of known characteristics of the pediatric motor speech disorders childhood apraxia of speech and childhood dysarthria. These results, if replicated in future studies, have significant potential to improve the early detection of language impairments, inform the development of speech and language interventions, and aid in the identification of neurobiological mechanisms influencing communication development.

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