Autistic Kids Can Outgrow Critical Sensory Disconnect, Study Finds

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

For many people, the “read-my-lips” phenomenon happens almost unconsciously: in a crowded or noisy room, most of us can hear better by watching the person’s lips form the sounds.

That’s not true for many people with autism. They have long reported being unable to pay attention to words and visuals at the same time — which may explain why some on the spectrum avoid looking others in the eye. They have to limit their visual information so they can hear what the person is saying.

In the last few years, researchers have finally begun to take these reports seriously and to investigate them.

In a paper out this week in the journal Cerebral Cortex,  researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx showed that children with autism struggle to integrate information from multiple senses. High functioning children with autism, ages 5-12, didn’t get the benefit most people do from watching a person’s lips moving while speaking over background noise, according to research led by professor of pediatrics John Foxe.

Older children with autism did get this benefit, though, Foxe found, suggesting that their ability to integrate senses comes together by the mid-teens – at least in children described as high functioning, which generally means they have fewer language impairments. Autism is a spectrum of social and communication challenges and repetitive behaviors that can range from a little unusual to completely disabling. Some people are unable to speak or function in society; others are university professors.

This improvement in sensory integration with age may explain why some people seem to recover from or outgrow autism as they reach adolescence, Foxe said, though he didn’t follow the same kids over time, so he can’t be sure that those who fared the best were also the ones who got better at integrating sensory information.

He also can’t yet explain why this improvement happens. “Is it a brain maturation process, is it to do with socialization, is it to do with the interventions these kids are getting? The jury is out right now,” he said.

But he has no doubt that it’s profound.

He suspects that the difference in sensory integration may explain the difference between someone who is described as high- or low-functioning. Improve the sensory integration, and the person may be able function more typically.

That has implications for future treatment, and also how we educate kids on the spectrum today.

Foxe is doing some initial outreach to therapists who could help design methods for improving sensory integration.

He said he also thinks we need to make an effort to improve current classroom situations. If these kids are already struggling, it doesn’t make sense to put them in busy, chaotic classrooms and then expect them to learn, he said. Even simple things like headphones to block out background noise might make a major difference, he said.

If you have autism or a child on the spectrum, have you ever noticed this disconnect between senses? Did it get less pronounced with age? Have you found any tricks for working through the challenge? Please let us know.

Karen Weintraub is a Cambridge-based health/science journalist and frequent contributor to CommonHealth. She is on Twitter @kweintraub.

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