The World Within: How the autistic brain processes sound

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by JEAN ENERSEN / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on December 29, 2009 at 4:58 PM

At Seattle Children's Center for Integrated Brain Research, Dr. John Welsh studies how the autistic brain processes sound.

This is a wide open area of research and there is merit in thinking about a large portion of autism being a problem with brain speed," he said.

Dr. Welsh's breakthrough research suggests individuals with autism hear the world at a slower rate. Knowing this could lead to better treatments.

When adults with autism are shown a movie clip of two people arguing, they didn't focus on the arguing faces, they zeroed in on objects in the background.

"So the brain's a little less specialized for faces than an individual who doesn't have autism," said Dr. Sara Jane Webb, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor.

In another study at the University of Washington, Dr. Sara Jane Webb measures the brain's electrical activity and how typical individuals and those with autism react to visuals, like familiar faces.

"So in the typical individuals there's really focal points in the back, so you can see in the individuals with autism we have a little more diffuse activation," said Dr. Webb.

She compares it to traveling down I-5 from Seattle to Portland. It's a direct route, but not for a brain with autism. 

"What their brain might be actually doing is taking 99. They may be taking Aurora, they might be taking an alternative highway to get there. Or they are getting on and off the highway," said Dr. Webb. "So the idea that it's not using the most efficient strategies, that efficiency hasn't naturally developed in the system."

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