Some Autistic Children Don’t Find Pleasure in Voices because of a physical disconnect between the brain regions involved in speaking and those linked to rewards

Some Autistic Children Don’t Find Pleasure in Voices

Children with autism spectrum disorder may not perceive human voices as pleasurable because of a physical disconnect between the brain regions involved in speaking and those linked to rewards, a study suggests.

Brain imaging determined that the connections between the two brain regions were stronger in children who don’t have the disorder than in those diagnosed with it, said Daniel Abrams, the lead author. That’s important because communication problems are key diagnostic criteria for autism.

One in 50 U.S. children are diagnosed with autism or a related disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority have difficulty using language effectively, including being unable to grasp nuances of speech such as rhythm and tone, according to the National Institutes of Health. The newest research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to suggest why.“There isn’t a lot of data to strongly point at what are the root causes of the social deficits in children with autism,” Abrams, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University in California, said by telephone. “We think it has this important motivation and reward component to it.”

Autism and related disorders increased 72 percent among American school children in 2011 and 2012 from the previous five years, the CDC said in a report on March 20. About 2 percent of children ages 6 to 17 were diagnosed on the autism spectrum, compared with 1.16 percent of kids in the CDC’s 2007 report.

More Targeted

“We’re starting to have a sense what is going wrong with a person with autism,” said Andy Shih, senior vice president of scientific affairs for Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, in a telephone interview. “It gives us an opening to be more targeted in our approach in developing answers for them.”

Insensitivity to human speech can affect a child’s early development, the authors said. Typical infants will listen to human speech and engage with sounds as a way to develop early language skills and emotional understanding, as well as to bond with their parents, the authors wrote.

Autistic children need to be motivated and encouraged to engage with speech and help it become a more rewarding sound, he said. Such efforts may be beneficial in helping overcome some of the wiring deficits in the brain.

First Observations

“Some of the very first observations” for children with autism “are often that these kids are unresponsive to human speech,” Abrams said.

Researchers in the study included 20 children with autism who were considered high functioning, with language skills and issues with communication. Their magnetic resonance imaging scans were compared with 19 children without the disorder who had similar intelligence.

The researchers looked at how the speech part of the brain was connected to other regions. Those with autism had weaker connections between the temporal lobe, where speech is controlled, and the dopamine reward pathway that elicits pleasurable feelings, the study found.

The research also found weak links between voice regions and parts of the brain that process emotional information, Abrams said. In the future, the researchers plan to look at whether there are certain parts or types of speech that activate an autistic child’s brain, he said.

“People are really working hard on this and making some cool findings,” Abrams said.

Mental health professionals this year revised the standards for diagnosing autism in their guidelines, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Among the changes was a decision to collapse several conditions, including Asperger’s syndrome and child disintegrative disorder, into a single autism diagnosis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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