Behavioral and Sensory Evaluation of Auditory Discrimination in Autism

Research funded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) P01HD025995 P4 (McIlvane)

Richard W. Serna

Limited and defective auditory learning skills are widely reported in children with intellectual disabilities, and in particular in with children who also have autism. These problems impose limitations on a wide range of learning opportunities, including communication, social skills training, and academic instruction, opportunities that are so often the primary focus of intervention programs, such as those based on principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA). Past research from our group has focused on the development of effective auditory discrimination learning procedures to address the problem. Though often successful, these procedures are not universally so. This may be accounted for, in part, by converging evidence from language, speech perception and psychophysiological research suggesting that individuals with autism may be particularly prone to deficits in verbal performance (compared to visual), speech perception (compared to non-speech sound) and in auditory sensory processing, respectively. Though these findings have the potential to guide our further development of auditory discrimination-learning procedures, they are derived principally from research with "high-functioning" individuals with autism; no formal population studies have examined the extent to which factors related to auditory learning difficulties in lower-functioning children (children with mental retardation) may or may not be specific to or uniquely expressed in children with autism.

This project represents the first phase of a larger research program, the central goal of which is to improve the training of children with autism who have intellectual disabilities in any task that requires auditory discrimination. However, we believe that to do so requires a fundamental and complete understanding of auditory discrimination problems in this population from an interdisciplinary perspective. The studies proposed here are designed to address crucial gaps in the research literature that could improve our ability to effectively ameliorate deficits in auditory discrimination. Thus, the goal of the present research is to examine the relation between fundamental auditory discrimination skills and children with autism and mental retardation.

We propose to examine experimentally three aspect of the scientific problem before us: (a) the possibility of enhanced and deficient discrimination of sound features in children who have autism and mental retardation; (2) the relation between behavioral auditory discrimination and auditory sensory processing in children who have autism and mental retardation; and (3) behavioral discrimination when the presentation of auditory stimuli is increasingly separated in time, modeling typical learning situations.