Improving auditory processing disorder in children on the Autism Spectrum

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by Barbara Calhoun, Ph.D

A recent study by Nicole Russo of Northwestern University and her colleagues, published in Behavioral and Brain Functions in 2010, evaluates whether auditory training programs such as Fast ForWord? can alleviate the auditory processing deficits so frequently seen in ASD children.

Russo’s study examines how effectively Fast ForWord could strengthen the auditory processing of speech sounds in similar ASD children. Her team hypothesized that such training would modify the neural processing of sound in children with ASD, and that such children “would show improvement in the neural encoding of speech syllables, including faster response timing, greater fidelity of the response relative to the stimulus, and more accurate pitch encoding over time.” (p. 3)

Results showed that training appeared to have benefited all participants in the experimental group, affecting their neural transcription of speech. According to Russo and her team, “each of the five children who underwent FFW training improved on at least one measure of cortical speech processing relative to the control group, with response timing improving in both quiet and noise for some children.” (p. 13)
Russo and her team were able to conclude that directed auditory training using Fast ForWord shows great promise for improving auditory processing in children with ASD ? specifically, those high-functioning children who have hearing in the typical range.

Content: This study was published in Behavioral and Brain Functions in 2010 and was done at Northwestern University by Dr. Nicole Russo and her colleagues. It evaluates whether auditory training programs, such as Fast ForWord, can alleviate the auditory processing deficits so frequently seen in children with autism spectrum disorders. Children with autism spectrum disorders or ASD demonstrate impairments in their use of language for social and communicative purposes. These impairments are typically apparent prior to three years of age.

There is emerging evidence that the neural encoding of speech sounds may be impaired in some children with autism spectrum disorders leading to atypical auditory brainstem responses to speech sounds and difficulties processing speech-specific stimuli such as detecting speech in background noise.

Since the Fast ForWord products provide auditory training including listening and sound-sequencing exercises, as well as exercises on auditory attention, auditory discrimination, phoneme discrimination, and memory, Dr Russo and her colleagues were interested in investigating the impact of the products on children with ASD.

High-functioning children with ASD who had participated in an earlier study were invited to partake in this one. The children all had a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. They had typical peripheral hearing, average mental abilities and average or near-average language scores.

Eleven boys with an average age of 9.2 completed the entire testing protocol and met the criteria. The children were then given the option of taking part in the intensive auditory training. Five children opted for the training and formed the experimental group. The other six children who opted not to take part in the training were willing to take part in the post-test and formed the control group. There was not a significant difference between the two groups in terms of age, IQ, or language ability.

Students in the experimental group used the intense intervention: the Fast ForWord Language Series which entailed the Fast ForWord Language product for an average for 20 days followed by Fast ForWord Language to Reading for an average of 32 days.

Auditory brainstem responses (ABRs) and Event-Related Potentials (ERP’s) were recorded from both groups. These tests measure the size and the timing of electrical activity that occurs in the brainstem and brain in response to a sound. In this case, the sounds were synthesized vowels that were heard in the presence of background noise, as well as in quiet. Auditory brainstem responses are subcortical events occurring less than 10 ms after the stimuli is presented while event-related potentials are cortical events occurring a few hundred milliseconds after the stimuli is presented. Both ABR’s and ERP’s measure the aggregate response of neurons and neither requires active involvement by the participant.

Due to the small number of participants, and the variations between them, the analysis involved defining a “typical change” as the average change for students in the control group plus one standard deviation, and defining a “significant change” for one of the participants as a change that was more than the control’s change plus one standard deviation.

The researchers were particularly interested in subjects that had two or more measures with significant change. All five students improved more than one standard deviation on at least two tests. The researchers concluded that there is Initial evidence that directed auditory training may improve auditory processing in a specific population of children with ASD ? specifically high-functioning children with ASD who have hearing in the typical range.

They also concluded that computer-based training may benefit some children with ASD by acting on biological processes.

Read the complete report on this research at the link below:
Nicole M Russo, N., Hornickel, J., Nicol, T. Zeckler, S. Kraus, N. Biological changes in auditory function following training in children with autism spectrum disorders. Behavioral and Brain Functions 2010, 6:60.

Related Reading:
Understanding Autism in Children
Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord