Language and Communication

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Basic Characteristics

Those with ASD display a range in language and communication capabilities. Some children with ASD are mute their whole lives, others babble or speak early in life but stop speaking later on, and there are some who display few language deficits (Asperger's Syndrome). Those who are mute sometimes learn to use other communication systems, such as pictures or sign language.1 There are many augmentative and alternative communication(AAC) devices which ASD children who can not speak may be taught to use. Studies which looked at the use of AAC devices generally showed that that children were able to learn how to use these devices. However, AAC machines were usually only used to teach requesting skills, so there is a great need for machines that can be used for more advanced communication skills 5

Children with ASD that are only mildly affected by language deficits might still have difficulty holding a conversation despite their large vocabulary. Prognosis for further speech development is poor for most children who have not developed any useful speech by 5, although there have been reported cases of children who acquired speech after 5 years of age. Many research studies used behavioral therapy to teach speech to older children with autism because of the success of popularity of these methods for younger children. Out of 64 studies examined in a meta-analysis, 167 individuals with autism developed speech after 5. Out of those individuals that started speaking after 5 year old, 37 individuals developed speech through behavior analysis methods (out of 27 published studies), 25 children developed speech after being taught American Sign Language (8 studies), 18 children developed speech while attending their school special education program (5 studies), six began speaking after typical speech language therapies, and eleven acquired speech while participating in computer based treatment programs. 1

Neurobiology of Language

Neuroimaging studies using fMRIs have suggested that individuals with autism may process language differently from typically developing individuals. During language task, activation in atypical cortical areas are increased, where as activation is abnormally increased or decreased in typical language areas. Both magnetoencephalography and evoked potential studies have shown that those with autism eventually overuse the right hemisphere to process language, though overuse does not happen until adolescence. The pattern of activation is reminiscent of activation patterns in patients with developmental dyslexia. 2

Language and Mirror Neuron System

The mirror neuron system has been suggested to be linked to language by neuroimaging studies which show that areas in the premotor cortex activate both when the individual sees the action performed and when they read a phrase detailing the action.(e.g. biting the banana). EEG studies measuring mu suppression link mirror neuron system response to the clinical observations of improvement in social skills and communication therapies for children with ASD when they involve interaction with parents or siblings.3

Speech Perception

Studies have suggested that speech perception depends on both auditory(hearing the sounds) and visual(lip reading) cues. Many studies show that those with autism rely less on visual cues than typically developing peers. As a result, they have a more difficult time in speech perception, particularly in noisy environments where auditory cues are not as efficient. The decrease in speech perception then might affect further processing and understanding of social communication or slow language development.4

Pages related to Language

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1. Pickett E et. al. Speech acquisition in older nonverbal individuals with autism: a review of features, methods, and prognosis.Cogn Behav Neurol. 2009 Mar;22(1):1-21. PMID 19372766

2. Frye RE et al. Receptive language organization in high-functioning autism.J Child Neurol. 2009 Feb;24(2):231-6. PMID 19182164

3. Le Bel RM et. al. Motor-auditory-visual integration: The role of the human mirror neuron system in communication and communication disorders.J Commun Disord. 2009 Jul-Aug;42(4):299-304. PMID 19419735

4. Iarocci G et. al. Visual influences on speech perception in children with autism.Autism. 2010 Jul;14(4):305-20. PMID 20591957

5. van der Meer LA et. al. Communication interventions involving speech-generating devices for children with autism: a review of the literature. Dev Neurorehabil. 2010;13(4):294-306. PMID 20629595

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