Autism and the Ability to See Sound

A recent study by Joanne Jao Keen of San Diego State University found that people with autism may be recruiting the visual areas of the brain to process sounds they hear. This could explain the sensory sensitivities that people with autism typically face as both auditory and visual portions of the brain are being used to register sound.
In the study, children were presented with 36 different tones that differentiated between high and low pitches. The first finding was that children with autism had slightly more difficulty than the control group distinguishing a high note from a low one. The more interesting finding though, was the representation of the brain that Keen saw on the MRI while the children performed this task.
It appeared that in typical individuals, when there was sound the visual cortex of the brain would turn off to allow the auditory portion of the brain to process the tones. However, for the children with autism, the visual cortex of their brain (specifically the left lingual gyrus) became more active when tones were played. As Autism severity increased, the research showed a corresponding higher level of activity in the visual cortex when sounds were registered. It seems that children with autism try to process sound as visual stimuli and furthermore, it may be possible that the children with autism have a certain capacity for seeing sound.


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