, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 29-42

Young autistic children's listening preferences in regard to speech: A possible characterization of the symptom of social withdrawal

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Autism is a childhood disorder diagnosed primarily in the presence of severe social unresponsiveness in the first 3 years of life (Volkmar, 1987). Since speech exerts a prepotent attraction on the attention of normally developing infants, hence facilitating social engagement, we designed a technique to examine whether this inborn reaction could be at fault in young autistic children. They were given a choice between their mothers' speech and the noise of superimposed voices (a sound effect obtained in a busy canteen). Data were obtained utilizing a specially designed automated and computerized device which recorded the children's responses in their own homes. In contrast to comparison groups of mentally retarded and normally developing children who showed the expected strong preference for their mothers' speech, the autistic children actively preferred the alternative sound or showed a lack of preference for either audio segment. These results suggest that such abnormal reactions to speech are a feature of these children's overall disregard to people.

The present study was first reported as part of doctoral research carried out at the University of London in 1988. I am grateful to Rob Farr from the Department of Social Psychology, LSE, and to John Morton and Uta Frith from the MRC Cognitive Development Unit for their support and guidance. I am also indebted to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The study was made possible by the kind cooperation of the CDC, Charing Cross Hospital, Jack Tizard School, Hammersmith, and the Under-5s conference of the National Autistic Society. I am especially thankful to the children and families for their enthusiastic participation.