Salk Institute Draws Link Between Language and Autism

The Salk Institute in San Diego, CA. (Photo by dreamsjung/Flickr)

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, located in San Diego, California, has been studying language and sociability in an attempt to uncover more about autism and Williams Syndrome. Both autism and Williams Syndrome are neurodevelopmental disorders that have great impacts on the social interaction of those affected by them.

The specifics regarding how individuals are impacted, however, are very different. While individuals with autism live in a world where objects make much more sense than people do, and socializing is often avoided, people with Williams Syndrome are social butterflies who greatly enjoy other people’s attention (Salk Institute).

People who suffer with Williams Syndrome often have low-IQs and severe spatial problems. Despite this, their language development is exceptional.

“The discrepancy between their language ability and IQ is startling,” says co-author Ursula Bellugi, professor and director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute, who has been studying the behavioral aspects of Williams Syndrome for more than 20 years. “Children with Williams syndrome have elaborate and rich vocabularies and use very descriptive, affect-rich expressive language, which makes their speech very engaging.”

In contrast, people with autism often struggle to effectively use and process language, particularly in conversations. It was in observing these almost mirror-like differences between the two disorders that researches decided to dig deeper.

It is this divide in language skills and use, which mirrors the opposite social profiles, that led us to explore how brains of individuals with Williams Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) process language,” says Inna Fishman, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk. Dr, Fisherman conceived the study together with Debra Mills, Ph.D., currently a reader at Bangor University in UK.

The study compared individuals with ASD, Williams Syndrome, and healthy controls in processing language. The results suggest that language skills and the neural processing involved with them go hand-in-hand with the level of sociability, potentially mediating the likelihood of interaction and communication with others (Salk Institute).  Additionally, subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorders tended to display behaviors that would indicate trouble integrating lexical information in an ongoing context, such as in conversation and speech. The close association with language and sociability may provide more answers to the details behind ASD.

These findings are to be published in the forthcoming issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. To read the full press release from the Salk Institute, please visit their website by clicking here.

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