The new DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) include sensory disturbances in addition to the well-established language, communication, and social deficits. One sensory disturbance seen in ASD is an impaired ability to integrate multisensory information into a unified percept. This may arise from an underlying impairment in which individuals with ASD have difficulty perceiving the temporal relationship between cross-modal inputs, an important cue for multisensory integration. Such impairments in multisensory processing may cascade into higher-level deficits, impairing day-to-day functioning on tasks, such as speech perception. To investigate multisensory temporal processing deficits in ASD and their links to speech processing, the current study mapped performance on a number of multisensory temporal tasks (with both simple and complex stimuli) onto the ability of individuals with ASD to perceptually bind audiovisual speech signals. High-functioning children with ASD were compared with a group of typically developing children. Performance on the multisensory temporal tasks varied with stimulus complexity for both groups; less precise temporal processing was observed with increasing stimulus complexity. Notably, individuals with ASD showed a speech-specific deficit in multisensory temporal processing. Most importantly, the strength of perceptual binding of audiovisual speech observed in individuals with ASD was strongly related to their low-level multisensory temporal processing abilities. Collectively, the results represent the first to illustrate links between multisensory temporal function and speech processing in ASD, strongly suggesting that deficits in low-level sensory processing may cascade into higher-order domains, such as language and communication.
Keywords: audiovisual; autism spectrum disorders; multisensory integration; sensory processing; speech perception; temporal processing.