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Department of Cognitive Science

Language impairment and autism

Jon Brock, Blake Johnson, Genevieve McArthur, and Samantha Calacouris

People with autism have difficulty interacting and communicating with others. They also have problems adapting to changes in their environment and many experience perceptual and motor difficulties, memory impairments, and intellectual disability. Many people with autism have severe language difficulties, although some have perfectly good linguistic skills (even though they may struggle with other aspects of communication such as body language or conversational skills).

Language difficulties also affect non-autistic people. Children who have language difficulties without any obvious cause (i.e., their hearing is OK, they have normal intelligence, and they don’t have autism) are referred to as having specific language impairment or SLI for short. Although autism and SLI are considered to be separate disorders, recent research suggests that there may be some overlap in terms of perceptual and cognitive impairments, differences in brain structures, and possibly also genetic factors. If this is true, it will have important implications for how we think about the two disorders.

The aim of this project is to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that underlie autism and SLI. This will help us to identify the crucial differences between children with autism who have language impairment versus those who do not, and to determine whether autism and SLI really are related conditions.

We are currently conducting Stage 1 of the project. Together with Dr Lisa Archibald from the University of Western Ontario, we are developing computer-based tests to look in detail at children’s phonological skills – how they process the sounds of language.

The second phase, in collaboration with Professor Kate Nation at Oxford University, will investigate various aspects of sentence-level comprehension using eye-tracking to see how participants’ eye-movements are affected by the language they are hearing.

In the final phase, we will be using magnetoencephalography (MEG) to investigate brain responses to verbal and nonverbal stimuli. We are particularly interested in how language-processing occurring in one part of the brain is affected by activity happening elsewhere in the brain. Together with Professor Christiana Leonard from Florida University, we will also be using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look in detail at the structure of language-related brain regions across the different groups of children.

  • To find out more about the background to this research, click here.
  • To get involved in this research, click here.

Supported by

  • Australian Research Council, Discovery Project and Australian Research Fellowship (2009-2013). Cognitive and neural causes of language impairment in autism. Brock, J., Johnson, B., & McArthur, G. ($422,285)
  • Macquarie University Research Infrastructure Block Grant Scheme (2009) Kids' Science Club: A Children's Research Register at Macquarie University. McArthur, G., Robbins, R., Castles, A., Crain, S., Rapee, R., Thornton, R., Lyneham, H., Cupples, L., Hudson, J., Bowes, J., Palermo, R., Brock, J., Porter, M., Johnson, B., Cox, F., Warburton, W., Kohnen, S., Jensen, B. ($32,858)
  • Macquarie University Research Infrastructure Block Grant (2009). Remote eyetracker for testing special populations. Crain, S., Brock, J., Thornton, R., Castles, A., McArthur, G., Langdon, R., Porter, M., Marsh, P., Palermo, R., Rapee, R., Gamble, A., Hudson, J., Lyneham, H., Barnier, A., Cox, R., Savage, G., Rowe, D., Rich, A. ($47,908)
  • Macquarie University Research Development Grant (2008-2010). Language-mediated eye-movements in autism, specific language impairment, and typical development. Brock, J. ($49,905)
  • Macquarie University Safety Net Grant (2008). Cognitive integration in autism spectrum disorders. Brock, J.  ($16,000)
  • Macquarie University New Staff Grant (2008). Auditory processing in the brains of normal reading and reading impaired children. Johnson, B. ($20,000)
  • Macquarie University Research Infrastructure Block Grant Scheme (2007). MACCS - Brain imaging software. Coltheart, M., Crain, S., & Johnson, B. ($36,310)
  • ARC Linkage-Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities Grant (2006). A MEG based cognitive neuroscience laboratory. Crain, S., Coltheart, M., Michie, M., Crewther, D.P., Pammer, K., Johnson, B.W. & Mattingley, J.B. ($650,000)

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