Autistics exhibit a contrasting combination of auditory behavior, with enhanced pitch processing abilities often coexisting with reduced orienting towards complex speech sounds. Based on an analogous dissociation observed in vision, we expected that autistics' auditory behavior with respect to complex sound processing may result from atypical activity in non-primary auditory cortex. We employed fMRI to explore the neural basis of complex non-social sound processing in 15 autistic and 13 non-autistics, using a factorial design in which auditory stimuli varied in spectral and temporal complexity. Spectral complexity was modulated by varying the harmonic content, whereas temporal complexity was modulated by varying frequency modulation depth. The detection task was performed similarly by autistics and non-autistics. In both groups, increasing spectral or temporal complexity was associated with activity increases in primary (Heschl's gyrus) and non-primary (anterolateral and posterior superior temporal gyrus) auditory cortex Activity was right-lateralized for spectral and left-lateralized for temporal complexity. Increasing temporal complexity was associated with greater activity in anterolateral superior temporal gyrus in non-autistics and greater effects in Heschl's gyrus in autistics. While we observed similar hierarchical functional organization for auditory processing in both groups, autistics exhibited diminished activity in non-primary auditory cortex and increased activity in primary auditory cortex in response to the presentation of temporally, but not of spectrally complex sounds. Greater temporal complexity effects in regions sensitive to acoustic features and reduced temporal complexity effects in regions sensitive to more abstract sound features could represent a greater focus towards perceptual aspects of speech sounds in autism.
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