Language delay is a hallmark feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The identification of word boundaries in continuous speech is a critical first step in language acquisition that can be accomplished via statistical learning and reliance on speech cues. Importantly, early word segmentation skills have been shown to predict later language development in typically developing (TD) children.
Here we investigated the neural correlates of online word segmentation in children with and without ASD with a well-established behavioral paradigm previously validated for functional magnetic resonance imaging. Eighteen high-functioning boys with ASD and 18 age- and IQ-matched TD boys underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while listening to two artificial languages (containing statistical or statistical + prosodic cues to word boundaries) and a random speech stream.
Consistent with prior findings, in TD control subjects, activity in fronto-temporal-parietal networks decreased as the number of cues to word boundaries increased. The ASD children, however, did not show this facilitatory effect. Furthermore, statistical contrasts modeling changes in activity over time identified significant learning-related signal increases for both artificial languages in basal ganglia and left temporo-parietal cortex only in TD children. Finally, the level of communicative impairment in ASD children was inversely correlated with signal increases in these same regions during exposure to the artificial languages.
This is the first study to demonstrate significant abnormalities in the neural architecture subserving language-related learning in ASD children and to link the communicative impairments observed in this population to decreased sensitivity to the statistical and speech cues available in the language input.