Under noisy listening conditions, visualizing a speaker's articulations substantially improves speech intelligibility. This multisensory speech integration ability is crucial to effective communication, and the appropriate development of this capacity greatly impacts a child's ability to successfully navigate educational and social settings. Research shows that multisensory integration abilities continue developing late into childhood. The primary aim here was to track the development of these abilities in children with autism, since multisensory deficits are increasingly recognized as a component of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) phenotype. The abilities of high-functioning ASD children (n = 84) to integrate seen and heard speech were assessed cross-sectionally, while environmental noise levels were systematically manipulated, comparing them with age-matched neurotypical children (n = 142). Severe integration deficits were uncovered in ASD, which were increasingly pronounced as background noise increased. These deficits were evident in school-aged ASD children (5-12 year olds), but were fully ameliorated in ASD children entering adolescence (13-15 year olds). The severity of multisensory deficits uncovered has important implications for educators and clinicians working in ASD. We consider the observation that the multisensory speech system recovers substantially in adolescence as an indication that it is likely amenable to intervention during earlier childhood, with potentially profound implications for the development of social communication abilities in ASD children.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; cross-modal; development; sensory integration; speech-in-noise.
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