AUDITORY PROCESSING PROBLEMS
Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
Autistic individuals typically have problems processing
auditory information. One auditory processing problem occurs when
a person hears speech sounds but he/she does not perceive the meaning
of the sounds. For example, if someone says the word ‘shoe,’ the
person may hear the speech sound, but he/she does not understand
the meaning of the sound. Sometimes the lack of speech comprehension
is interpreted by others as an unwillingness to comply. However,
the person may not be able to retrieve the meaning of the sound
at that particular time.
Eric Courchesne of the University of California
at San Diego has found significant impairments in auditory processing
in autistic individuals using P300 brain wave technology (Courchesne,
1987). The P300 brain wave occurs 300 milli-seconds after the presentation
of a stimulus. (The ‘P’ refers to the positive polarity of the brain
wave.) The P300 is associated with cognitive processing, and this
brain wave is considered an indication of long-term memory retrieval
(Donchin, Ritter, & McCallum, 1978). Edelson et al. (1999) examined
auditory P300 activity prior to and three months following auditory
integration training (AIT). Three autistic individuals participated
in the experimental AIT group and two autistic individuals participated
in a placebo group. Prior to AIT, all five individuals had abnormal
auditory P300 activity, indicating an auditory processing problem.
Three months following AIT, the results showed dramatic improvement
in P300 activity for those who received AIT (i.e., a normalization
of P300 activity) and found no change in those who received the
We do not know the underlying reason for auditory
processing problems in autism;
however, autopsy research by Drs. Bauman and Kemper have shown that
an area in the limbic system, the hippocampus, is neurologically
immature in autistic individuals (Bauman & Kemper, 1994). The
hippocampus is responsible for sensory input as well as learning
and memory. Basically, information is transferred from the senses
to the hippocampus, where it is processed and then transferred to
areas of the cerebral cortex for long-term storage. Since auditory
information is processed in the hippocampus, the information may
not be properly transferred to long-term memory in autistic individuals.
Auditory processing problems may also be linked
to several autistic characteristics.
Autism is sometimes described as a social-communication problem.
Processing auditory information is a critical component of social-communication.
Other characteristics that may be associated with auditory processing
problems include: anxiety or confusion in social situations, inattentiveness,
and poor speech comprehension.
Interestingly, those individuals who do not have
auditory processing problems are often ‘auditory learners.’ These
children do very well using the Applied
Behavior Analysis (ABA) approach, whereas those who are visual
learners do not do as well with this approach (McEachin, Smith and
Lovaas, 1993). Given this, one might suspect that many visual learners
have auditory processing problems and that visual learners will
do quite well with a visual communication/instruction approach.
It is also possible to provide visual support with ABA programs
that have an auditory component. In this way, the visual learner
can process the auditory information more easily.
The better autistic children understand auditory
information, the better they can comprehend their environment, both
socially and academically. The better we understand the autistic
child, the better we can develop ways to intervene in an effective
Bauman, M.L., & Kemper, T.L. (1994). Neuroanatomic observations
of the brain in Autism. In M.L. Bauman & T.L. Kemper (Eds.),
The neurobiology of Autism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.
Courchesne, E. (1987). A neurophysiological view of Autism. In E.
Schopler & G.B. Mesibov (Eds.), Neurological issues in Autism.
New York: Plenum Press.
Donchin, E., Ritter, W., & McCallum, W.C. (1978). Cognitive
psychophysiology: The endogenous components of the ERP. In E. Callaway,
P. Tueting, & S. Koslow (Eds.), Event-related brain potentials
in man. New York: Academic Press.
Edelson, S.M., Arin, D., Bauman, M., Lukas, S.E., Rudy, J.H., Sholar,
M., & Rimland, B. (1999). Auditory integration training: A double-blind
study of behavioral, electrophysiological, and audiometric effects
in autistic subjects. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities,
McEachin, J.J., Smith, T., & Lovaas, O.I. (1993). Long-term
outcome for children with Autism who received early intensive behavioral
treatment. American Journal of Mental Retardation, 97, 359-372.
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