Advances in our ability to “map out” the brain have transformed how we understand autism. See our earlier post referring to Minshew’s extensive research on adults with autism. But this latest research has us terribly excited, and not just because we’re into research.
If you follow the research, your understanding of autism grows robust. But sometimes a study comes along that transforms our basic understanding of how autism “works.” This is one of those studies.
Last week, PLOS ONE (eISSN-1932-6203) published a research study on language processing in autism. In the study, two-year-olds (24 with autism and 20 without) listened to a mix of familiar and unfamiliar words. Researchers monitored their brain responses using an elastic cap with sensors. The sensors measured a type of brain activity called event-related potentials.
Clear differences in which part of the brain responded to familiar versus unfamiliar words were shown in typically developing toddlers. Their brains responded more strongly to familiar words in a language area on the brain’s left side. This was also true of one subgroup of the children with autism who had mild social challenges.
By contrast, another subgroup of children with autism showed little difference in how their brains responded to familiar versus unfamiliar words. These children demonstrated considerable challenges with social interaction, and their responses came from a broad area on the right side of their brain. This pattern is not seen in typically developing children of any age. It is unique to this subset of children with autism.
The research study presented two findings of interest. First, the results on words reinforce the theoretical view that the early acquisition of language is tightly coupled to social function in typically developing children and in children with autism. The discussion section of the research report explains that infants as young as eight months go through a process of using computational skills to learn one phonetic unit and words. Over time, infants learn that one syllable follows another to make a word. What is most amazing is that infants learn this only when interacting with another human being. Not through television or electronic devices, but through person to person relations. This clearly demonstrates why infants with problems in social interaction have so much trouble developing language. The study supports this hypothesis showing that the infants with considerable social challenges processed words in a different area of the brain than did those with milder social impairment.
The next step in developing this research is to to discover intervention methods that build social competence, since it is the gate to language development.
The second research finding was that understanding known words for a child with autism predicted linguistic, cognitive, and adaptive outcomes years later, at ages four and six. This result was obtained controlling for cognitive ability and independent of the specific intensive clinical treatments that the children were receiving. Again the study discussion explains that language processing helps to build the neural structure necessary to support efficient learning of more complex linguistic structures, advanced cognitive skills, and the development of appropriate adaptive behaviors in children with autism. Not only is this a powerful case for early diagnosis and intervention but it also suggests that effective interventions can be tested building on this research.
Taken together these findings bolster our belief that interventions which rely on relationships, engagement and play to support young children with autism reap the greatest rewards.