Auditory perceptual learning in autistic adults

Alispahic, S., Pellicano, E., Cutler, A., & Antoniou, M. (2022). Auditory perceptual learning in autistic adults. Autism Research, 15(8), 1495-1507. doi:10.1002/aur.2778.
The automatic retuning of phoneme categories to better adapt to the speech of a novel talker has been extensively documented across various (neurotypical) populations, including both adults and children. However, no studies have examined auditory perceptual learning effects in populations atypical in perceptual, social, and language processing for communication, such as populations with autism. Employing a classic lexically-guided perceptual learning paradigm, the present study investigated perceptual learning effects in Australian English autistic and non-autistic adults. The findings revealed that automatic attunement to existing phoneme categories was not activated in the autistic group in the same manner as for non-autistic control subjects. Specifically, autistic adults were able to both successfully discern lexical items and to categorize speech sounds; however, they did not show effects of perceptual retuning to talkers. These findings may have implications for the application of current sensory theories (e.g., Bayesian decision theory) to speech and language processing by autistic individuals.
Lay Summary

Lexically guided perceptual learning assists in the disambiguation of speech from a novel talker. The present study established that while Australian English autistic adult listeners were able to successfully discern lexical items and categorize speech sounds in their native language, perceptual flexibility in updating speaker-specific phonemic knowledge when exposed to a novel talker was not available. Implications for speech and language processing by autistic individuals as well as current sensory theories are discussed.
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