Understanding Auditory Processing in Autistic Adults
July 31, 2023
By: Sherri Alms
In 2020, OAR awarded graduate researcher Chelsea Anderson a grant of $2,000 for her investigation into the role of auditory attention in speech-in-noise processing in young autistic adults. Her research study examined how auditory attention skills affect the ability of the brain to process sounds, particularly being able to hear speech in noise.
Auditory attention refers to the brain’s ability to pay attention to and understand the meaning of sounds and to select and concentrate on important sounds that a person needs or wants to hear, for example, someone trying to hear what a friend says while a band plays on stage. Auditory attention enables the brain to tune into important auditory stimuli while reducing responses to unimportant stimuli.
Autistic individuals may present with impaired attentional networks in the right hemisphere of the brain, impacting their ability to process speech with noise in the background. Because auditory processing abilities play a role in academic performance, it is critical to better understand mechanisms underlying auditory skills to ensure educational success.
In her study, Anderson examined the role of neurobehavioral measures of auditory attention in auditory processing skills in autistic adults. An understanding of that role could help in the development of evaluation and treatment techniques targeting auditory processes that impact communication challenges.
She recruited 28 participants, eight autistic adults in the experimental group and 20 neurotypical adults to serve as a control group. She used electrophysiological and behavioral measures to determine whether differences in auditory attention explain variability in behavioral auditory processing outcomes and how sound is coded in the brain, including determining participants’ tolerable signal-to-noise ratio and measurements of speech-in-noise perception and auditory attention abilities.
Additionally, nine autistic participants completed semi-structured interviews regarding listening capabilities.
Relative to neurotypical peers, this study revealed that autistic individuals demonstrate lower speech perception and acceptance of noise, lower auditory attention skills, and differences in neural responses to stimuli. As in previous studies, speech-in-noise performance was significantly lower in the autistic group. Other testing measures revealed that the autistic participants could tolerate less background noise than the neurotypical participants.
Anderson noted in her dissertation that this finding is significant because auditory sensitivities characterized by negative reactions to environmental stimuli are reported as the most common deficit in auditory processing abilities in this population. Her study also found that speech-in-noise deficits were likely attributable to attention deficits and separate from auditory hypersensitivities.
The findings of Anderson’s study support her hypothesis that autistic individuals significantly underperform neurotypical peers in measures of speech-in-noise processing. Deficits in auditory processing are directly linked with academic performance and social aptitude. As Anderson wrote in her dissertation, “it is imperative to better understand behavioral and cortical differences in autism that contribute to impaired auditory processing of speech stimuli to ensure successful navigation of social, academic, and vocational spheres.”
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.