Dyslexia, Autism and Language Processing
Two new studies offer a better understanding of the problems dyslexics and autistic individuals have processing language.
In a recent study in Science, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that people with dyslexia have more difficulty recognizing voices than those without dyslexia; that dyslexia affects not only reading, but also understanding spoken language.†The New York Times describes the experiment:
John Gabrieli, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, and Tyler Perrachione, a graduate student, asked people with and without dyslexia to listen to recorded voices paired with cartoon avatars on computer screens. The subjects tried matching the voices to the correct avatars speaking English and then an unfamiliar language, Mandarin.
Nondyslexics matched voices to avatars correctly almost 70 percent of the time when the language was English and half the time when the language was Mandarin. But people with dyslexia were able to do so only half the time, whether the language was English or Mandarin. Experts not involved in the study said that was a striking disparity.
Difficulty hearing spoken language can have a direct influence on one’s reading comprehension. A child who struggles to hear how different phonemes — the parts of words — are pronounced is also challenged to connect what he or she hears to the written word. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a director of the Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale University, also notes that dyslexic children often “misspeak,” as in this example:
“A child at Fenway Park watching the Red Sox said, ‘Oh, I’m thirsty. Can we go to the confession stand?.’”
My own 14-year-old son Charlie is autistic and only able to read some single words. He’s not been diagnosed with dyslexia, in part because it’s not been possible to test him for it. But I would say the MIT research applies to his long struggle to read. It takes him quite a bit of time to figure out what’s he heard and still longer to try to match sounds to printed letters (some of which he still confuses, such as P and B). I also am sure it’s incredibly frustrating for him to think he’s pronouncing something correctly, only to see us think he’s saying something completely different.
Another study in the journal Brain used brain imaging to investigate another language problem many autistic children, Charlie included, have reversing pronouns. The Brain study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and found that the connections between the front and posterior parts of the brain in autistic individuals is affected.†Says†Science Daily.
The results revealed a significantly diminished synchronization in autism between a frontal area (the right anterior insula) and a posterior area (precuneus) during pronoun use in the autism group. The participants with autism also were slower and less accurate in their behavioral processing of the pronouns. In particular, the synchronization was lower in autistic participants’ brains between the right anterior insula and precuneus when answering a question that contained the pronoun “you,” querying something about the participant’s view.
“Shifting from one pronoun to another, depending on who the speaker is, constitutes a challenge not just for children with autism but also for adults with high-functioning autism, particularly when referring to one’s self,” [Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI)] said. “The functional collaboration of two brain areas may play a critical role for perspective shifting by supporting an attention shift between oneself and others.
“Pronoun reversals also characterize an atypical understanding of the social world in autism. The ability to flexibly shift viewpoints is vital to social communication, so the autistic impairment affects not just language but social communication,” Just added.
The researchers also suggest that understanding of social interactions is affected — that is, when an autistic child’s response to “do you want something?” is “you want something,” the child is confused about who exactly is doing the wanting, with resulting further confusion about what to do.
After reading the Brain study, it occurred to me that not only does Charlie tend to leave out pronouns when he talks; we have a tendency to drop them when we speak to him and to rely on context to communicate.†Both the Science study on dyslexia and Brain study on pronomial reversals in autism are reminders that, when people struggle to speak, it’s often due to how their brains are “wired” and that it would be well for the rest of us to listen with especial care not only to what they say, but to how we are communicating, too, and to make accommodations — far easier for me to change what I’m saying than it is for Charlie.
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