NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Findings of a new study released Tuesday by Vanderbilt University researchers in The Journal of Neuroscience unveil cues as to why autistic children have communication problems and trouble bonding with people.
They do not instantaneously connect noises with sources or relate the words they hear with the speakers. The research suggests that games to enhance sensory perception should be a primary focus in early intervention therapy.
"We know there are sensory problems in children with autism," said Mark Wallace, a neurobiologist who is director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute. "That's been established for a long time. The new piece of information from our perspective is it hasn't been appreciated how important the integration across the different senses is for building a healthy brain."
This week Wallace is in Switzerland, where he is scheduled to speak Thursday about the findings at the 2014 Alpine Brain Imaging Meeting. Vanderbilt researchers used computer games to compare typically developing children between the ages of 6 and 18 with the same number of high-functioning children with autism. They matched up the two groups as closely as possible, with all the children having similar IQ scores.
The autistic children had trouble identifying instantaneous sound and visual stimuli.
"It is like they are watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed - the auditory and visual signals do not match in their brains," said Stephen Camarata, professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt.
Wallace said computer games could be used to help autistic children improve their sensory skills.
"On every test, the children are asked to basically make a judgment about the timing of a light and a sound," Wallace said. "It can be very simple - a flash of light and a burst of sound. One of the examples we have is a bumblebee. The children are asked to differentiate between male bumblebees and female bumblebees. With male bumblebees, the flash and sound are absolutely at the same time. With female bumblebees, the flash and the sound are at different times."
A carefully planned exercise that would reward children when they get a right answer could help them better connect noises with sources, he said.
"One of the classic pictures of children with autism is they have their hands over their ears," Wallace said. "We believe that one reason for this may be that they are trying to compensate for their changes in sensory function by simply looking at one sense at at time. This may be a strategy to minimize the confusion between the senses."
Researchers at Vanderbilt are also investigating how autistic children perceive touch.
"A lot of what we are working on in the lab is what we call the tactile, the touch domain, to see if these same kind of things that happen with sight and hearing also extend into the realm of touch." Wallace said.