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For Those With Autism, Sound Of Human Voice May Be Unpleasant

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New research may help explain why individuals with autism often fail to grasp the social and emotional elements of speech.

Scientists say they’ve spotted a weak connection in children with autism between the area of the brain tasked with responding to voices and the brain structures that release dopamine in response to rewards. They also found a disconnect between the brain’s voice processor and the area responsible for detecting emotional cues.

As a result, the sound of the human voice may not be pleasurable to those with the developmental disorder, researchers report in a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It is likely that children with autism don’t attend to voices because they are not rewarding or emotionally interesting, impacting the development of their language and social communication skills,” said Vinod Menon, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University and a senior author of the study.

For the research, Menon and his colleagues compared fMRI brain scans from 20 kids with high-functioning autism to those from 19 typically developing children. The more impaired the brain connections were in the children with autism, the more severe their communication difficulties were, the study found.

“The human voice is a very important sound; it not only conveys meaning but also provides critical emotional information to a child,” said the study’s lead author, Daniel Abrams of Stanford University. “We are the first to show that this insensitivity may originate from impaired reward circuitry in the brain.”

The finding could lead to the development of new treatments for autism, researchers said.

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Comments (11 Responses)

  1. Jody says:

    Interesting. Whenever my now 20-yr old son heard me sing, he would scream. He would also scream and start to cry whenever he heard the Happy Birthday song (starting when he was 2) and also would well up and cry whenever anyone sang Rock A By baby. But he loved listening to recorded music. So weird. I could never figure that one out. Maybe it was something in the processing?

  2. Robert says:

    I’m not sure if unpleasant is the word. Having autism myself I don’t find the human voice quite unpleasant.

    However, I find very few sounds pleasant. Probably some music is about all I would find pleasant, but more music I would describe as enjoyable rather than pleasant. The louder the sound the more I find it unpleasant.

    I’ve noticed that most other people are relaxed by the sound of the human voice, and I know that is not the case with me, or other people with autism. It seems the autistic mind treats it as equal to any other sound, as if it’s nothing different, and the autistic mind in general does not like many sounds, especially loud ones.

  3. Heather Hudson says:

    So very true-My 10 yr old son has high functioning Autism and started learning to talk when he was 5 he had been learning to talk when at age 14 mos he stopped talking walking eating etc..ec.. Screamed for hours upon hours if you spoke tried to sing or other he screamed even more. When he became verbal he would shout dop it-now at 10 he says shut up or stop it he mainly likes pecs cards sign language animated type of speech and only at certain times but he now will talk up a storm he along with his Autism has severe sensory Integration difficulites and is hypo and hyper sensitive so this explains it for my son. He has a hard time listening to other’s and makes you wisper when /if you talk in a normal voice but not wispering he thinks your yelling at him and when he hears other’s actually yelling it’s very disturbing and agitates him-great article. My son is Amazing and learning little bits every day. He is at an age 5 to 7 yr old all around accept when in a severe meltdown he is at infantile to age 3 age level. He loves math and science and is emerging at a modified grade 2 level and when talking about things he likes to do or places he wants to go he’s at his age level of 10 i love my son Lyric so so much and he has come so very far from being non verbal and very much isolated and in his own world to very verbal most days [although he still is emerging] in learning about his and other’s emotions/facial expressions etc.. and doesn’t always know what is beig said or asked of him and he will only talk about his likes but he is coming along wonderfully I embrace my son Autism and all -he amazes and teaches me far more in and about life then I could ever hope or dream tot each him-through his eyes-amazing!

  4. Scott Standifer says:

    It would be interesting to see this study linked with the tentative reports that children with ASD and deafness, who learn ASL as a native language, have fewer social challenges than hearing children with ASD.

    Dr. Scott Standifer
    University of Missouri

  5. Lind Davis says:

    This is very interesting! Could extreme interest and response, almost total absorption in cartoon and/or video presentations shown in an autistic child be related to this concept? My grandson who is now 12 will completely tune out a human voice when absorbed in viewing any video material.

    He loves music and actually cries because he thinks the music in Church is “so beautiful” at times. He too would cry when he was a baby if anyone sang “Rock A By Baby” It was not a distressed scream or cry but a cry like he was touched emotionally.

  6. Donald Marden Fitch,MS says:

    In our learning lab research w/ persons diagnosed on the spectrum,we’ve found significantly shorter completion times & fewer errors across five computer job tasks; type a letter in Word, spreadsheet in Excel,create business cards in Publisher, Google a map,etc when preformed alone, w our highly visual comic book Tutorials, than traditional Instructor-led classes, one-on-one or Skype instructional modes. Students report ” the more in control I am, the better I work”. confirming this research, we ve found less stimuli; teachers talking, text, fellow students, ambient noise, fluorescent lights,etc all contribute to poorer performance. We learned we were part of the problem. Flipping the class & giving the student some space to work results in greater satisfaction all around.convincing “Controlling Teachers” is a challenge.

  7. 2onthespectrum says:

    Very interesting. Our 13 year old Aspie had no speech delay at all, but our 11 year old, who has autism, continues to struggle with speech and he is clearly more affected by the disorder. This may not only apply to human voices and may be why most people with ASD are “visual” learners. But, my 11 year old also watches and listens to animated material. I wonder how that fits in to the picture? I suspect it is partly the control that he has over the animation that he enjoys.

  8. Michael Levi says:

    This article actually makes a very different claim than the headline suggests. This report does suggest that people with ASD may receive less pleasure from the sound of a voice but they do not suggest that the sound of a human voice may be unpleasant. This is an important distinction and the headline should be corrected.

  9. Row B. says:

    My experience with my adult daughter with a disability of Autism is that she can appear to tune people out at times( but can repeat what you just said to her, if asked), take longer to respond to requests and hyper focus on music to exclusion of the person speaking to her. She is also extra sensitive to the human voice when it is tinged with anger, distress such as screaming or crying, and loud voices as well. She gets very concerned for the person that is in distress. Angry voices can cause her to become agitated, if not soothed by adult explaining that she is safe. Dogs barking close to her agitate her.

    Of note is that she has had speech therapy on and off for many years with only small amounts of progress. We recently started using a Dynavox (FFC) device. We have created lots of buttons to help my daughter respond to social as well as emergency situations. My daughter appears to be able to quickly imitate the speech phrases on the Dynavox device. The device appears to have also increased her natural speech and also increased the loudness of her voice.

  10. Ronixis says:

    I’m confused at the first comment. If he would scream and start to cry whenever he heard the “Happy Birthday” song, why did you keep singing it?

  11. Anna Winter says:

    At a certain time of every day,I do not like hear people or talk to people,not being rude its been like this all of my life.All I hear is bla-bla-bla,gives me a headache.Can anyone explain?Thank You Anna

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