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Keywords:

  • Event-related potentials;
  • N400;
  • words;
  • environmental sounds

Background:  Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social-emotional, social-communicative, and language skills. Behavioral and neuroimaging studies have found that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) evidence abnormalities in semantic processing, with particular difficulties in verbal comprehension. However, it is not known whether these semantic deficits are confined to the verbal domain or represent a more general problem with semantic processing. The focus of the current study was to investigate verbal and meaningful nonverbal semantic processing in high-functioning children with autism (mean age = 5.8 years) using event-related potentials (ERPs).

Method:  ERPs were recorded while children attended to semantically matching and mismatching picture–word and picture–environmental sound pairs.

Results:  ERPs of typically developing children exhibited evidence of semantic incongruency detection in both the word and environmental sound conditions, as indexed by elicitation of an N400 effect. In contrast, children with ASD showed an N400 effect in the environmental sound condition but not in the word condition.

Conclusions:  These results provide evidence for a deficiency in the automatic activation of semantic representations in children with ASD, and suggest that this deficit is somewhat more selective to, or more severe in, the verbal than the nonverbal domain.