New research suggests that children with high-functioning autism often outgrow at least one facet of their disability as they reach adolescence.
Many kids with autism have trouble linking the visual and sound-based cues associated with speech, which can present trouble in navigating school and social situations. However, the problem appears to clear up as they age, according to findings published online this week in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
“This is an extremely hopeful finding,” said John Foxe, a professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University and the study’s lead author. “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.”
For the study, researchers assessed 222 kids ages 5 to 17 — some of whom had high-functioning autism and others who were typically developing — to determine how well the children could understand speech when background noise was present.
People tend to rely on both sight and sound cues to understand each other in situations where this “cocktail party” effect occurs, Foxe said.
When presented with audio alone, the children with and without autism performed similarly no matter the level of background noise. However, when only provided video the kids with autism did significantly worse than their typically developing peers, though none of the children performed very well.
In a third scenario, the kids were provided both audio and video and those with autism ages 6 to 12 did much worse than the other children especially as background noise increased. Strikingly, however, the older children with autism did just as well as their typically developing peers, suggesting that a change in ability may have occurred as they aged, the researchers said.
“In adolescence, something amazing happens and the kids with ASD begin to perform like the typically developing kids,” Foxe said. “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.”