Multiple talker processing in autistic adult listeners

Alispahic, S., Pellicano, E., Cutler, A., & Antoniou, M. (2024). Multiple talker processing in autistic adult listeners. Scientific Reports, 14: 14698. doi:10.1038/s41598-024-62429-w.
Accommodating talker variability is a complex and multi-layered cognitive process. It involves shifting attention to the vocal characteristics of the talker as well as the linguistic content of their speech. Due to an interdependence between voice and phonological processing, multi-talker environments typically incur additional processing costs compared to single-talker environments. A failure or inability to efficiently distribute attention over multiple acoustic cues in the speech signal may have detrimental language learning consequences. Yet, no studies have examined effects of multi-talker processing in populations with atypical perceptual, social and language processing for communication, including autistic people. Employing a classic word-monitoring task, we investigated effects of talker variability in Australian English autistic (n = 24) and non-autistic (n = 28) adults. Listeners responded to target words (e.g., apple, duck, corn) in randomised sequences of words. Half of the sequences were spoken by a single talker and the other half by multiple talkers. Results revealed that autistic participants’ sensitivity scores to accurately-spotted target words did not differ to those of non-autistic participants, regardless of whether they were spoken by a single or multiple talkers. As expected, the non-autistic group showed the well-established processing cost associated with talker variability (e.g., slower response times). Remarkably, autistic listeners’ response times did not differ across single- or multi-talker conditions, indicating they did not show perceptual processing costs when accommodating talker variability. The present findings have implications for theories of autistic perception and speech and language processing.
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