Science: new data, new ideas

Posted: July 26th, 2009 under communication, disability issues, interventions, sensory processing.
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Sometimes I feel like jumping up and screaming “FINALLY!” at the research end of things.   This summer there have been several really good research reports, some mentioned in national media as well, on autism-spectrum issues.  But what I want to highlight tonight is the one that sparked the “FINALLY!” reaction.

The July 17th Science has two review articles on education that finally bring together the disciplines I’m convinced are crucial to the understanding of autism, its early detection in infants and young children, and the development of more effective therapies.  These are cognitive science, brain imaging, artificial intelligence, and psychology.  “Dyslexia: A New Synergy Between Education and Cognitive Neuroscience” focuses on dyslexia but has useful concepts for autism and other developmental problems.  “Foundation for a New Science of Learning” discusses what is now known about the genetic and neurological components of learning–and also has gems that apply to spectrum conditions.

At this point, the only actual mention of autism in these articles is minimal and tangential, but here’s why I think the articles are so important and may lead to good things.  Finally the neurological and social basis of learning is being investigated in sufficiently fine grain–the relationship between brain structure, brain maturation, sensory input and brain plasticity, the understanding of neural networks, and so on.   You still find terms like “effortlessly” (for the way “normal” children learn language before age seven) which gloss over the complexity of the problem, but there’s also increased recognitiont that there is complexity, that every part of the body and brain that cooperate to create language learning are necessary for it to appear “effortless.”

For instance:  neurotypical babies have not only the hearing acuity, but the auditory processing, to notice the very brief consonant sounds.  Thus, during the first year of life, they are easily able to start building their “phonological library” of the sounds in their native language.   They can tell that human speech is human speech and not ambient noise.   It’s now possible to test infants for this ability,  and sure enough, the earlier the sound patterns are mastered, the faster language itself advances in the next stage.    Any child who has a problem hearing or processing language sounds as an infant will have a slower acquisition of verbal language later.

I’ve been hammering on this for years:  if the child cannot distinguish speech from noise–for any reason, but for autistic children usually an auditory processing problem related to speed of capture–then a delay in speech and difficulty in speech is both inevitable and may cause (but does not result from) “emotional” or “psychological” problems.

Similarly with difficulties in imitative learning and gaze following, where a visual processing can prevent someone from following the rapid movements another person follows with ease.    The typical adult does not hold an averted gaze at a target as long as some children need–we look at the target and then quickly look back to see if the child is looking where we looked.   (Our adult autistic son still has trouble looking where he is directed to look: he moves his head to face that direction but his eyes continue to look where they were looking, or he will sometimes turn his eyes, but not his head.  It’s as if he needs the referent of his existing position.   If, however, I move very slowly and hold the target gaze position long enough,  he will match gaze the usual way.

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