People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) typically struggle with gleaning the emotional content from spoken language, but often excel at music. This led researchers to ask how people with ASD would handle something that incorporates spoken language and music: tonal languages. Tonal languages, like Mandarin and Vietnamese, differentiate words from each other using tones. The researchers theorized that people with ASD who are native speakers of a tonal language might be better at parsing the emotional component of spoken language. The results demonstrated that people with ASD are strong at interpreting musical pitch, but relatively weak at understanding language conventions like intonation.
The researchers recruited native speakers of Mandarin, China’s primary language, for the study. Two groups of 17 children, aged 5 to 16, participated in the study. Children in one group were diagnosed with ASD and children in the other group did not have ASD. Both groups of children had equal levels of musical training.
In the first test, the researchers played 48 pairs of five-note musical chords for the participants. Half of the chord pairs were, in fact, the same chord played twice. The participants had to identify whether each chord pair consisted of the same chords or two different chords.
In the second test, the researchers played 40 two-syllable Mandarin expressions. Each expression was presented as a question and a statement. The difference between a question and a statement was the type of intonation used on the second syllable. The participants had to identify which expressions were statements and which were questions.
The children with ASD demonstrated a strong capacity for music. The ASD children performed as well as, or better than, the typically developing children on the music task. This musical capability did not carry over into the language task. The children with ASD performed significantly worse than the typically developing children when identifying the intonation of spoken syllables. The results suggest that people with ASD do not process spoken pitch and musical pitch the same way.
This issue suggests that people with ASD who speak tonal languages may have even more difficulties with understanding spoken language than people with ASD who speak non-tonal languages. Tonal language speakers with ASD may need tailored interventions to help them overcome difficulties understanding spoken language.
This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
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