Chasing the conversation: Autistic experiences of speech perception

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background and aims Humans communicate primarily through spoken language and speech perception is a core function of the human auditory system. Among the autistic community, atypical sensory reactivity and social communication difficulties are pervasive, yet the research literature lacks in-depth self-report data on speech perception in this population. The present study aimed to elicit detailed first-person accounts of autistic individuals’ abilities and difficulties perceiving the spoken word. Methods Semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine autistic adults. The interview schedule addressed interviewees’ experiences of speech perception, factors influencing those experiences, and responses to those experiences. Resulting interview transcripts underwent thematic analysis. The six-person study team included two autistic researchers, to reduce risk of neurotypical “overshadowing” of autistic voices. Results Most interviewees reported pronounced difficulties perceiving speech in the presence of competing sounds. They emphasised that such listening difficulties are distinct from social difficulties, though the two can add and interact. Difficulties were of several varieties, ranging from powerful auditory distraction to drowning out of voices by continuous sounds. Contributing factors encompassed not only features of the soundscape but also non-acoustic factors such as multisensory processing and social cognition. Participants also identified compounding factors, such as lack of understanding of listening difficulties. Impacts were diverse and sometimes disabling, affecting socialising, emotions, fatigue, career, and self-image. A wide array of coping mechanisms was described. Conclusions The first in-depth qualitative investigation of autistic speech-perception experiences has revealed diverse and widespread listening difficulties. These can combine with other internal, interpersonal, and societal factors to induce profound impacts. Lack of understanding of such listening difficulties – by the self, by communication partners, by institutions, and especially by clinicians – appears to be a crucial exacerbating factor. Many autistic adults have developed coping strategies to lessen speech-perception difficulties or mitigate their effects, and these are generally self-taught due to lack of clinical support. Implications There is a need for carefully designed, adequately powered confirmatory research to verify, quantify, and disentangle the various forms of listening difficulty, preferably using large samples to explore heterogeneity. More immediate benefit might be obtained through development of self-help and clinical guidance materials, and by raising awareness of autistic listening experiences and needs, among the autistic community, communication partners, institutions, and clinicians.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism & Developmental Language Impairments
Publication statusPublished - 24 Feb 2022


Dive into the research topics of 'Chasing the conversation: Autistic experiences of speech perception'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this