New Research: Why Some Autistic People Struggle to Understand a Speaker's “Tone”

Most autistic people have some difficulty with social language–the verbal and nonverbal language we use for social purposes, such as conversation. One area that can be challenging is interpreting the emotions conveyed by a person’s tone of voice.

Recent research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging looked at why autistic people have trouble in this area. In this article, we explain the research and how speech therapy can help autistic children and adults with social communication skills.

Learning to interpret emotions from tone of voice

As neurotypical children grow and develop, they learn to associate different vocal sounds with different emotions and feelings. For example, when a baby hears their caregiver talk to them in a positive tone, they can recognize that the adult is expressing positive feelings. Maybe the caregiver says, “I love you!” or “Let’s play!” in an upbeat, happy tone. Even if the baby doesn’t yet understand what these words mean, they recognize that the person’s voice sounds happy. 

Neurotypical kids can also interpret negative feelings in people’s voices. Maybe they hear their parents talking about a frustrating day at work. Of course, the child won’t understand what’s being said, but they can tell that the tone of voice is associated with negative emotions. 

The voice can actually tell you more about emotions than a person's actual words.

Interpreting people’s emotions is an important part of learning to respond and communicate with others. Daniel Abrams, one of the main researchers of the study, is a psychiatry professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. As he says, "The voice can actually tell you more about emotions than a person's actual words.” However, for autistic children, this area of social language is often difficult. 

What the research showed

The study included 43 autistic and neurotypical children between the ages of 7 and 12. The researchers were able to identify a particular part of the brain that interprets voice to understand emotion. The findings revealed that autistic kids can hear and process a speaker’s varying tones related to different emotions. However, the trouble is in the brain’s ability to interpret those sounds. 

How the research was done

During the study, 22 autistic children listened to recordings of different phrases. A group of 21 neurotypical kids was used as a comparison. The children listened to a speaker saying, "A bag is in the room" and "My spoon is on the table." Each recording was read with a different tone of voice: neutral, happy, or sad.

Each child was then told to name the emotion they thought was being conveyed. The results showed that the autistic children had a more challenging time with this task. 

Next, both groups of kids listened to these recordings while undergoing an MRI. In both the autistic and neurotypical children, the parts of their brains related to hearing responded similarly. But there was a difference in brain responses linked to the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the part of the brain involved in social communication. 

What does this mean for parents and caregivers of autistic children?

If you have an autistic child, it’s helpful to understand why they might have difficulty “reading” emotions in people’s voices. If they don’t seem to understand how the person feels or respond as expected, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. It’s simply due to a difference in how their brain functions. 

There are no inferior ways of relating to the world, just different ways.

The researchers suggested that someday there could be technology to help improve the brain’s ability to understand vocal inflection. Not every autistic person may want to use this technology, but it could be available in the future. In the meantime, it’s important to understand the differences in how people’s brains work and perceive information. There are no inferior ways of relating to the world, just different ways. Awareness and understanding can go a long way in creating successful and rewarding interactions with autistic individuals. 

How can speech therapy help autistic people with social language?

Speech therapy can help autistic kids and adults strengthen their social communication skills, both in understanding social language and in expressing it themselves. 

The ability to understand the emotions in a person’s voice is part of social language. If a child or adult would like to improve this skill, a speech therapist can help them in a variety of ways.

Speech therapy might begin with discussing different emotions and learning to name and identify them. From there, the person might watch videos of others talking, listen to recordings, or role-play by making statements with different vocal inflections. The speech therapist will help the person through the tasks and give cues as necessary to identify the emotion being communicated. 

Autistic individuals may never be 100% accurate in this area simply because of their brain differences–and that’s OK! But if this is an area in which they want to improve, speech therapy can make a big difference.

Interpreting tone of voice is just one area of social communication that can be targeted in speech therapy. Speech therapy for social language can also focus on:

  • Practicing joint attention: This is when two people are engaged in a task together.

  • Taking turns in conversation: Both people have a chance to speak, without interrupting each other.

  • Staying on topic in conversation: Both people make appropriate comments and ask related questions.

  • Using nonverbal communication: Using gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact as needed to communicate messages easily and clearly.

  • Practicing jokes, sarcasm, and figurative language: These forms of language can be difficult to interpret and understand, so they’re often helpful to practice in therapy.

Keep in mind that an autistic person’s social communication will likely look different than a neurotypical person's, even with the support of speech therapy. You, your child, and your child’s speech therapist can talk together about which areas of social communication are appropriate or necessary for your child to work on. The goal is for your child to be the clearest communicator they can be, in ways that feel meaningful and authentic to who they are. An important note: We believe that when speaking about any community as a whole, the best approach is to prioritize that community’s voices, needs, and preferences. Within the larger autism community, the current language preference is identity-first (e.g., "autistic child" rather than "child with autism"), which is why we use that language. Expressable is committed to listening to and learning from the populations we serve. If and when their preferences change, we’ll adjust our approach accordingly.

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