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Auditory Spatial Attention in ASD

One of the earliest red flags for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is when a child does not respond to his or her name being called. Decreased social orienting is often one of parents' first concerns, and children with ASD continue to have particular difficulty orienting to speech and other social sounds throughout their life. In contrast, they often don't have as much trouble orienting to nonsocial environmental sounds. Successfully turning toward and paying attention to speech and people is critical for early social development and for later communication, social skills, and learning. In this study, we are examining several key components of this social orienting difficulty in children with ASD.

One key component in orienting to speech is being able to focus attention on where a sound is coming from in the environment (also known as auditory spatial attention). For example, when a friend calls your name in a noisy cafeteria, you need to determine where the sound is coming from and then focus your attention on your friend so you can better hear what they are saying. Our brains help us to do this by pinpointing the location of a sound and focusing on that sound while ignoring distracting sounds nearby. In our study, we are interested in how auditory spatial attention is different in children with ASD compared to their neurotypical peers.

Additionally, speech sounds contain much more complex acoustic information than most nonsocial environmental sounds. The acoustic complexity of speech may be more difficult to process for individuals with ASD, and may help explain their difficulties in social orienting. In this study, we are also investigating whether children's spatial attention is different when they are listening to speech compared to non-speech sounds, and whether this difference is due to the complexity of the sounds.

The findings from this study will allow us to understand how children with ASD focus their attention on important sounds in the noisy environments of everyday life, and ultimately how this ability impacts communication and learning.

This project is funded in part by a Center for Navigation and Communication Sciences Fellowship (T32 DC009974) to Laura Soskey.

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