Researchers Determined the Root Cause of Why Those with Autism Have Difficulty Identifying a Speaker’s Tone

Social interaction is a vital part of being a community member because every connection you build helps in your personal growth. You meet friends, partners, or colleagues through simple interactions, mainly a conversation. Your ability to be a good communicator aids you in socializing well. A good conversation does not only require the exchange of words but also the ability to listen attentively and identify the speaker’s tone. By following communication etiquette, you can properly hold a conversation and respond correctly.

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However, some people find difficulty in talking with others. It does not mean that they are rude. For instance, children with autism can be overwhelmed with social interaction, and signs are often shown in various actions. They struggle with eye contact, reading facial expressions, and understanding what the speaker says, and sometimes they have trouble with how to respond. Not only that, but those with autism cannot reply properly because they have difficulty determining the speaker’s tone. Assessing emotional cues is also a challenge for them, which plays a huge role in communicating with others.

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The condition has been a topic of discussion among researchers — a case they are trying to figure out. Recently, a study was published in the online journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. Daniel Abrams from Stanford University School of Medicine is one of the lead researchers, and, together with his colleagues, they conducted a study. The observation involved 22 children with autism aged 7 to 12. To further find differences, the team also included 21 kids of the same age but with no autism.

The research tried to figure out if communication difficulty has something to do with problems in the processing of sensory information, which is also caused by autism. Their response to emotional cues might be likened to how some children are easily overwhelmed by loud sounds, bright lights, and new textures. To find answers, they made the young participants listen to recordings of two phrases, which are “a bag is in the room,” and “my spoon is on the table.” Children were instructed to name the emotions they can recognize in each recording. The scientists provided recordings of the two phrases in neutral, happy, or sad tones.

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In the second part of the observation, the participants underwent an MRI test while listening to recordings with some non-vocal sounds. The results showed that both groups did not differ in the hearing part. However, the problem occurred when auditory information was blocked from the part of the brain that is responsible for communication. Kids with autism aren’t able to understand the speaker’s tone, as information isn’t delivered to the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ. Through the team’s findings, people can better understand why those with autism have trouble with social communication. It’s not because they can’t comprehend or hear you, but because of the changes in their brain function.

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“It is valuable to know the brain basis for difficulties in deciphering the ’emotional tags’ in voices,” says chief science officer for the nonprofit Autism Science Foundation, Alycia Halladay. “People can use that information when conversing with someone with autism. If your vocal inflections seem to be falling flat, you don’t have to talk louder or animate yourself so they can ‘hear’ you better,” she added. Furthermore, with the data they gathered, they could start therapies that can further develop the communication skills of those with autism. Abrams clarified that devising those therapies might be difficult for now, but it’s a step closer to a better future.

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