Linguistic and Non-Linguistic Semantic Processing in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: An ERP Study

Abstract

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) experience difficulties with language, particularly higher-level functions like semantic integration. Yet some studies indicate that semantic processing of non-linguistic stimuli is not impaired, suggesting a language-specific deficit in semantic processing. Using a semantic priming task, we compared event-related potentials (ERPs) in response to lexico-semantic processing (written words) and visuo-semantic processing (pictures) in adults with ASD and adults with typical development (TD). The ASD group showed successful lexico-semantic and visuo-semantic processing, indicated by similar N400 effects between groups for word and picture stimuli. However, differences in N400 latency and topography in word conditions suggested different lexico-semantic processing mechanisms: an expectancy-based strategy for the TD group but a controlled post-lexical integration strategy for the ASD group.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that in principle, ‘visuo-semantic’ processing could refer to any link between visual stimuli and concepts, including printed words. However, for the purposes of the current study, we use the term “visuo-semantic processing” to refer to semantic processing of picture stimuli specifically.

  2. 2.

    The mean length of time between ADOS testing and participation in this study was approximately 8 months (range 0–41). One participant had approximately 41 months (3 years 5 months) between initial ADOS administration and EEG testing. This participant was unavailable for further testing; however, because the ADOS has been shown to have good test–retest reliability at the item, domain, and classification levels (Lord et al. 2000, 2012), it is unlikely that his classification will have changed significantly in this time. In addition, analyses of the data without this participant did not change the overall patterns of effects. The maximum length of time between ADOS administration and EEG testing for all other participants was 18 months or fewer.

  3. 3.

    Because we used a dense electrode array, it was often impractical to get all electrodes under this impedance threshold, especially with electrodes near the ears or at the back of the neck. For example, depending on the shape of a participant’s head some electrodes near the ears might not make good contact with the scalp. However, we ensured that roughly 90 to 95% of channels, and all electrodes in the center of the scalp, were under the 50 kΩ threshold before initiating the experimental session or proceeding with testing after checking impedances. Impedances were always checked after initial net application. The electrode sponges were rewet and impedances were rechecked approximately every 10–15 min throughout the EEG session.

  4. 4.

    We also ran all analyses with nonverbal K-BIT as a covariate instead of PPVT and the results were highly similar. Because this study investigates language processing, in part, we report the results with PPVT as a covariate in order to equate the groups on language ability. This allows us to investigate group differences arising from the ASD classification that go beyond language abilities.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Nancy Grund for her help with editing and Joseph Dien, Ph.D. for helpful discussions and for his review of an early draft of this manuscript. This research was supported by the Therapeutic Cognitive Neuroscience Fund and the Benjamin and Adith Miller Family Endowment on Aging, Alzheimer’s, and Autism Research. Preliminary analyses of these data were presented at the 2015 meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in San Francisco, California.

Author Contributions

EC conceived of the study, participated in its design and coordination, collected data, performed the statistical analysis, interpreted the data, and drafted the manuscript. MC participated in the design and coordination of the study, collected data, and helped draft the manuscript. BG participated in the coordination of the study and helped draft the manuscript. KL participated in the design of the study and helped draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Emily L. Coderre.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Coderre, E.L., Chernenok, M., Gordon, B. et al. Linguistic and Non-Linguistic Semantic Processing in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: An ERP Study. J Autism Dev Disord 47, 795–812 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-016-2985-0

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Keywords

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Semantic processing
  • ERP
  • Language
  • Pictures