Language Processing: How autistics process language

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danlo
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09 Nov 2005, 5:37 am

Its freakish how closely the results of this study describe my own language processing. I also see the letters themselves as shapes, and I also focus on the individual words in a sentence. The meaning and sequence of the individual words is how I work out the meaning of a sentence. It's fascinating.

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Brains Of People With Autism Recall Letters Of The Alphabet In Brain Areas Dealing With Shapes

In contrast to people who do not have autism, people with autism remember letters of the alphabet in a part of the brain that ordinarily processes shapes, according to a study from a collaborative program of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health.

The study was conducted by researchers in the NICHD Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism (CPEA) at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. It supports a theory by CPEA scientists that autism results from a failure of the various parts of the brain to work together. In autism, the theory holds, these distinct brain areas tend to work independently of each other. The theory accounts for observations that while many people with autism excel at tasks involving details, they have difficulty with more complex information.

The study and the theory are the work of Marcel Just, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Nancy Minshew, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and their colleagues.

"This finding provides more evidence to support a promising theory of autism," said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the NICHD. "If confirmed, this theory suggests that therapies emphasizing problem solving skills and other tasks that activate multiple brain areas at the same time might benefit people with autism."

People with autism typically have difficulty communicating and interacting socially with others. The old saying "unable to see the forest for the trees" applies to people with autism, describing how many of them excel at matters of detail, yet struggle to comprehend the larger picture. For example, some children with autism may become champions at spelling bees, but have difficulty understanding the meaning of a sentence or a story.

"The language pattern in autism is a microcosm for the disorder," Dr. Just said. "People with autism are good at a lower level of analysis but have a deficit at the higher level."

In the current study, the researchers used a brain imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the brain activity of 14 individuals with high functioning autism while they performed a simple memory task involving letters of the alphabet. Specifically, the study volunteers were shown a sequence of letters. After each letter, they were asked to name the letter that preceded it. In some cases, they were asked to name the letter that appeared two letters previously. The autism volunteers' brain activation patterns were compared to a control group of people who did not have autism, but were of a similar age and I.Q. level.

Both groups successfully completed the task. However, the fMRI scans revealed different brain activation patterns between the two groups. Compared to the control group, the volunteers with autism showed more activation in the right hemisphere, or half, of the brain, and less activation in the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere takes the lead in processing letters, words and sentences, whereas the right hemisphere plays a larger role in processing shapes and visual information.

Dr. Just said that the brain could interpret letters either spatially, as geometric shapes, or linguistically, by the names of the letters. The imaging data indicated that the volunteers with autism remembered letters as shapes, while the control group remembered them by their names.

The brain activation patterns of the two groups also differed in other ways. While performing the task, the group with autism showed less activation in the anterior, or front, parts of the brain, and more activation in the posterior, or rear parts of the brain. Dr. Just explained that the brain's anterior portions carry out higher-level thinking and reasoning while the posterior portion is more involved with perceiving details.

Compared to the control group, the different brain areas of the people with autism were less likely to work in synchrony (at the same time) while recalling the letters. Such synchronization between brain areas takes place during many kinds of higher-level thinking and analysis that prove difficult for many people with autism.

These current findings provide evidence in support of the theory developed by these researchers. Called the theory of underconnectivity in autism, it maintains that autism results from a failure of the brain's neurological wiring--the fibers of nervous system tissue that interconnect the individual parts of the brain. Deprived of effective connections, the different brain areas must work independently, sometimes performing at a higher level individually than they do in people who do not have autism. This may allow some people with autism to excel at spelling and other detail-oriented tasks but make it difficult for them to comprehend more complex material.

The researchers published their theory in the July issue of Brain, in conjunction with the results of another fMRI study of volunteers with autism. In that study, volunteers were asked a question about a simple sentence that they had just read. When the people with autism performed the task, their brains showed less synchronization than did the brains of the control group. Moreover, the brains of the group with autism had less activation in an anterior part of the brain that integrates the words of a sentence, and more activation in a posterior brain area that comprehends individual words.

Many behavioral therapies to treat autism stress rote learning, Dr. Minshew explained. Such strategies are helpful, particularly early in a child's development. However, if the theory of underconnectivity proves valid, therapies that stimulate brain areas to work in synchrony might also offer some benefit. Such therapies might stress problem solving skills and creative thinking, and attempt to foster flexibility in thinking.

Dr. Just noted that more evidence to support the theory might come from the group's on-going studies of other cognitive abilities. The researchers are attempting to determine if underconnectivity is a general feature of the brain in autism, and are using brain imaging studies to examine the brain's white matter in people with autism. White matter is the part of the brain that consists of the larger neurological connections spanning different parts of the brain.



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09 Nov 2005, 8:04 am

-unfortunately there is no delete button on this thread-



Last edited by Serissa on 10 Nov 2005, 8:07 am, edited 1 time in total.

danlo
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09 Nov 2005, 8:09 am

Yes, you completely missed the point of the article, lol.



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09 Nov 2005, 8:13 am

-unfortunately there is no delete button on this thread-



Last edited by Serissa on 10 Nov 2005, 8:07 am, edited 1 time in total.

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09 Nov 2005, 8:21 am

Thank you for sharing. That was very interesting. I have always said I don't feel like I can use both parts of my brain at the same time but that I have to shift from one type of thought process to another manualy.

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danlo
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09 Nov 2005, 9:28 am

Well, how does everyone here conceive of language? Does the article describe anyone else here? Does it NOT describe you? If it doesn't, how DO you perceive letters and words? That's what I would like to know. Exactly how does this study reflect autistics on a larger scale? What about executive functioning, etc?



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09 Nov 2005, 9:54 am

Text is easier for me to concieve/make sense of than spoken language, actually. The form of the words and the sounds are one, for me. Sometimes meaning matters, sometimes I get caught up on what looks and sounds interesting (for example, I love alliteration).

Spoken language, on the other hand, there's often delays (the one-second "what?" in other words). I hear the words but the meaning doesn't always come to me right away.



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09 Nov 2005, 10:07 am

Oh no!! ! They're proposing to make us in multi-taskers!

8O 8O 8O

As for myself, not sure. I know I am more visually oriented and whever I think of a letter, I think of it visually. But I also call it by name. I think I use both, but heavily visual.


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09 Nov 2005, 12:24 pm

My sixteen year old son (diagnosed with autism) and I both taught ourselves to read at the age of three. He could not speak until he was six.

I taught myself with record labels and covers, he taught himself with video boxes and labels. We both learned by recognizing the shapes of words.

That's the first thing I thought of when I read the article.



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09 Nov 2005, 12:35 pm

Civet wrote:
Text is easier for me to concieve/make sense of than spoken language, actually. The form of the words and the sounds are one, for me. Sometimes meaning matters, sometimes I get caught up on what looks and sounds interesting (for example, I love alliteration).

Spoken language, on the other hand, there's often delays (the one-second "what?" in other words). I hear the words but the meaning doesn't always come to me right away.


I don't have any idea how I perceive things like that. Being comorbid, this could or could not apply to me. But I think I think something like that.


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09 Nov 2005, 2:19 pm

Yes, this is fascinating:

I have always been fascinated by the shapes of letters and words. I believe I follow what the article says exactly.

In fact, I don't even know what they mean when they say "recognize a letter by it's name".

For that reason, it took me years to learn how to spell out loud. Still, when I hear someone spelling something verbally, I have to stop and think about it for a bit.

Another startling thing that popped into my head just on reading this article: I started learning to read when I was six, and prior to that, I can't ever remember SAYING anything. I did. I began talking at around the normal time, but I don't remember speaking a WORD before I learned to read. My recollection of saying things is tied to pictures of the words, not words themselves...


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09 Nov 2005, 8:09 pm

danlo wrote:
Well, how does everyone here conceive of language? Does the article describe anyone else here? Does it NOT describe you? If it doesn't, how DO you perceive letters and words? That's what I would like to know. Exactly how does this study reflect autistics on a larger scale? What about executive functioning, etc?

No, I'm a verbal thinker mostly. I really don't often think about individual letters and words, so I don't really know how I perceive them. I do know, though, that, as I'm typing this, I hear myself dictating what I'm writing mentally.



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09 Nov 2005, 8:31 pm

I know my written language skills are much stronger than my verbal ones. I also have the short parsing delay between hearing words and understanding their meaning, which gets much worse under stress or in a foreign environment.

The past couple days I started a new job, where I spend most of my time in front of a computer without speaking, but occasionally have to ask questions of my boss or others. I was getting overloaded more easily than normal, so I found it easiest to plan the question for the boss in advance, recite it to him, memorize his answer phonetically (while giving an automatic response that I understood him, even though I hadn't noticed yet whether I'd understood or not). Then I'd get back to my desk, write down his answer phonetically before I forgot it.... and then start thinking about what the answer actually meant. He has a slight accent, so sometimes I'd end up writing down the wrong words... and then hours later, reading back over them and realizing he must have actually been saying a word that sounded similar, because it was the only thing that made logical sense.



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10 Nov 2005, 4:07 am

Civet wrote:
Text is easier for me to concieve/make sense of than spoken language, actually.
Same here, but my abilities in both tend to wax and wane. I don't know how much if it is autism and how much is ADD, but there are occasional days when I can't hear/read a complete sentence in one pass. On those days, reading is like navigating a maze -- I charge ahead until I realize I'm lost, and then I skip back several words or even several sentences and start over. This "three words forward, two words back" process continues until eventually I assemble the phrases into a complete message. With spoken language it can be a bit harder. Sometimes it's as though I'm hearing each word independently and spend so much effort trying to figure out the individual words that I don't have enough attention left to actually retain and assemble the sentence. When the other person finishes speaking I'm absolutely sure I heard every word but don't really know what they said. If I try to catch the meaning then I mis-hear the words and things go totally wrong because in that case I think I know what they said but really I don't. (Of course, there are times when I'm listening to someone and understand neither the words nor the sentence. It's as though English was temporarily a foreign language.) Luckily I only have these bad days about 10% of the time.
GroovyDruid wrote:
I started learning to read when I was six, and prior to that, I can't ever remember SAYING anything. I did. I began talking at around the normal time, but I don't remember speaking a WORD before I learned to read.
My mother told me I was almost completely silent until I was already two years old. I rarely cried, never babbled, and only said five words ("hi", "bye", "mom", "dad", "mine") and only rerely at that. Then when I was somewhere around 2 1/2 I apparently started speaking in complete sentences. I think a good portion of it may have been echolalia, as the only thing I can actually remember is when I was about three and was singing the same song from the radio over and over and over and over.... I learned to read when I was about 4 years old. Mom said I just sat down with a Reader's Digest one day and started reading. Of course I had been watching Sesame Street every day up until then so I knew the alphabet and could count at least as high as any muppet.
pyraxis wrote:
I know my written language skills are much stronger than my verbal ones.
I often don't make much sense when I'm trying to "chit chat" with people. I get an idea I want to express and decide what I want to say, but inevitably the wrong words come out. It's frustrating because it's like my mouth is completely independent. I know what I wanted to say and realize I'm saying something different as soon as it happens, but by then I've got too much momentum to stop. :? Instinctively I try to correct or clarify my point, but that only makes things worse. As with the reading/hearing problems, this isn't a constant problem but can be quite limiting when it happens. It doesn't seem to happen when I'm talking about technical issues. On those days I just stick to my work and try to stay as detached from social situations as possible. I prefer writing to speaking, mainly because I can edit the text until I get it right. For example, this post took almost an hour to write. Nobody could stand to listen to me for that long. :lol:
pyraxis wrote:
I also have the short parsing delay between hearing words and understanding their meaning, which gets much worse under stress or in a foreign environment.
I guess that's what I was describing above. I can hear the words and not understand the sentence, or I can try to hear the sentence but not understand the words.
pyraxis wrote:
I found it easiest to plan the question for the boss in advance, recite it to him, memorize his answer phonetically (while giving an automatic response that I understood him, even though I hadn't noticed yet whether I'd understood or not). Then I'd get back to my desk, write down his answer phonetically before I forgot it.... and then start thinking about what the answer actually meant.
I've never done that. I usually either ask people to say things again until I get it or else I *think* I understood what they said and only realize later that I had it all wrong.


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10 Nov 2005, 4:50 am

That fits me to a T I rock when it comes to talking but writing is so hard because of most if not all of what the article mentions. But I also nave a number of learning difs to do with writing

PS writing and spelling this write took 20minits


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