July 20, 2022—(BRONX, NY)—Good news for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): A possible cause of the social and communication deficits associated with ASD may normalize once they reach adulthood, according to a study led by Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists published in Communications Biology.
The researchers focused on multisensory processing—the brain’s ability to integrate messages arriving simultaneously or nearly simultaneously from different senses (sounds and sights, for example). The brain’s consolidation of these messages determines how we perceive the world. Compared with their neurotypical counterparts, children with ASD generally have more difficulty processing multisensory information, which may contribute to the problems they experience in social situations and in communicating.
In their study, the researchers assessed multisensory improvements in performance in 364 male and female participants aged six to 32; 139 of them had been diagnosed as high-functioning individuals with ASD, and 225 of them were neurotypical (i.e., not diagnosed with ASD).
Sitting in front of a computer, participants were asked to press a button as soon as they perceived any of three stimuli: a red disc, a pure sound tone presented from a speaker, or the combined simultaneous pairing of those visual and auditory stimuli. The participants were assessed for “multisensory gain,” i.e., how well they performed when presented simultaneously with the audio and visual stimuli compared with the sum of their reaction speeds when presented with each stimulus alone.
As expected, the children and younger teenagers with ASD had less multisensory gain than their same-aged neurotypical counterparts, indicating deficits in multisensory processing. However, the adults with ASD (i.e., individuals aged 18 and over) had multisensory gain similar to the neurotypical adults in the study—evidence that the impaired multisensory processing in children and teens with ASD gets better in adulthood. “This is certainly a hopeful finding,” said co-corresponding author Sophie Molholm, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and co-director of the Rose F. Kennedy Intellectual and Developmental Research Center at Einstein.
“We’ve known from an earlier study of ours that multisensory speech processing improves significantly between childhood and adolescence in high-functioning individuals with ASD,” said Dr. Molholm. “Our new study shows that multisensory processing ability also continues to improve into adulthood for non-speech stimuli to the point that adults with ASD perform as well as neurotypical adults. Ideally, these findings of typical multisensory processing in adulthood suggest that we can develop treatments to improve multisensory processing in childhood, when it is most likely to contribute to improved communication and social interaction in ASD, and that’s something we plan to investigate.”
Our new study shows that multisensory processing ability also continues to improve into adulthood for non-speech stimuli to the point that adults with ASD perform as well as neurotypical adults.
Sophie Molholm, Ph.D.
The study, titled “Resolution of impaired multisensory processing in autism and the cost of switching sensory modality,” published online on June 30 in Communications Biology. Additional authors include John Foxe, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Michael Crosse, Ph.D. (co-corresponding author), Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, (formerly of Albert Einstein College of Medicine); Katy Tarrit, Ph.D., and Edward Freedman, Ph.D., University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, New York.