Enhanced Pure-Tone Pitch Discrimination Among Persons With Autism but Not Asperger Syndrome

Neuropsychologia. 2010 Jul;48(9):2465-75. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.04.020. Epub 2010 Apr 28.


Persons with Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) display atypical perceptual processing in visual and auditory tasks. In vision, Bertone, Mottron, Jelenic, and Faubert (2005) found that enhanced and diminished visual processing is linked to the level of neural complexity required to process stimuli, as proposed in the neural complexity hypothesis. Based on these findings, Samson, Mottron, Jemel, Belin, and Ciocca (2006) proposed to extend the neural complexity hypothesis to the auditory modality. They hypothesized that persons with ASD should display enhanced performance for simple tones that are processed in primary auditory cortical regions, but diminished performance for complex tones that require additional processing in associative auditory regions, in comparison to typically developing individuals. To assess this hypothesis, we designed four auditory discrimination experiments targeting pitch, non-vocal and vocal timbre, and loudness. Stimuli consisted of spectro-temporally simple and complex tones. The participants were adolescents and young adults with autism, Asperger syndrome, and typical developmental histories, all with IQs in the normal range. Consistent with the neural complexity hypothesis and enhanced perceptual functioning model of ASD (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, & Burack, 2006), the participants with autism, but not with Asperger syndrome, displayed enhanced pitch discrimination for simple tones. However, no discrimination-thresholds differences were found between the participants with ASD and the typically developing persons across spectrally and temporally complex conditions. These findings indicate that enhanced pure-tone pitch discrimination may be a cognitive correlate of speech-delay among persons with ASD. However, auditory discrimination among this group does not appear to be directly contingent on the spectro-temporal complexity of the stimuli.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Asperger Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Audiometry, Pure-Tone
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pitch Discrimination / physiology*
  • Psychoacoustics
  • Young Adult