Boys with Autism Demonstrate Surprising Strength in Grammar Processing

Posted in News Release

WASHINGTON (Sept. 22, 2014)  — Autism is often characterized by language and communication deficits. Yet a study by neuroscientists found that boys with high-functioning autism were significantly faster at a key task of grammar abilities — producing past tenses for regular verbs — than were boys without autism.

The findings, published in November issue of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, suggest a surprising strength in language use in children with autism, says Michael Ullman, PhD, director of the brain and language laboratory at Georgetown University Medical Center, and senior author on the study.

“We had not expected this interesting finding. It makes us wonder whether some children with autism might also show related strengths, as yet unrecognized,” says Ullman.

“This notion is consistent with an emerging way of thinking that some disorders, especially those that occur during development, provide strengths as well as weaknesses,” adds Matthew Walenski, PhD, of Northwestern University, the first author on the study.

In this study, 20 boys (ages 7 to 13) diagnosed with high-functioning autism and a control group of 25 typically developing boys were asked to produce past tenses of verbs. The boys with autism were significantly faster than the control group at producing regular past tenses, which end in –ed, as in step-stepped or made-up verbs like plag-plagged. However, they were no faster than the control group at producing irregular past tenses, like sing-sang or for made-up verbs like spling-splang.

“This is a simple and elegant test of the basic building blocks of language,” Ullman says. “Processing regular past tenses reflects our grammatical abilities that are critical for understanding and producing sentences, while irregular forms are simply stored in our mental dictionary alongside words like cat. The results suggest that children with high-functioning autism may show speeded processing of grammar, while this pattern might not hold for at least some stored words.

“These grammatical abilities appear to depend on the procedural memory system – implicit memory that we use to learn and perform cognitive and motor skills such as playing video games and driving,” Ullman adds. “We don’t know if the increased speed we saw in processing regular past tenses in children with high-functioning autism affects other aspect of procedural memory, but we are excited to explore that possibility.”

The third co-author is Stewart Mostofsky, MD, at Kennedy Krieger Institute, where the subjects were recruited and tested.

Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation (SBR-9905273), the National Institutes of Health (R01 MH58189, R01 HD049347, R01 NS048527), and by research grants from the National Alliance for Autism Research, the Mabel Flory Trust, and the Simons Foundation.

About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis — or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies, both nationally ranked; Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute; and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization, which accounts for the majority of externally funded research at GUMC including a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health.