The diversity of speech perception difficulties among autistic individuals

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Background & aims: Communicative and sensory differences are core autistic traits, yet speech perception abilities and difficulties among autistic individuals remain poorly understood. Laboratory studies have produced mixed and inconclusive results, in part because of the lack of input from autistic individuals in defining the hypotheses and shaping the methods used in this field of research. Little in-depth qualitative research on autistic experiences of speech perception has been published, yet such research could form the basis for better laboratory research, for improved understanding of autistic experiences, and for the development of interventions. Existing qualitative research describes widespread autistic listening differences with significant impacts, but these results rely on data gathered via oral interview in a small sample. The present study addresses these limitations and employs a mixed methods approach to explore autistic listening experiences.
Methods: We gathered survey data from 79 autistic individuals aged 18-55 without diagnosed hearing loss. The questionnaire included 20 closed-set questions on listening abilities and difficulties and three free-text questions on listening experiences. The free-text questions underwent deductive content analysis using a framework composed of themes from previous interview data on listening experiences (including auditory differences, contributing factors, impacts, and coping strategies). Concepts in the free-text data that were not part of the analysis framework were analysed inductively.
Results: In the closed-set data, participants reported listening difficulties in most specified environments, but complex background sounds and particularly background voices caused the most difficulty. Those who reported listening difficulties expressed having substantially greater difficulties than other people the same age. Participants indicated multiple impacts from listening difficulties, most prominently in their social lives. Concepts in the freetext data strongly supported previous interview data on listening differences and factors that affect listening ability, especially the diversity of types of listening difficulties. Consistent with the closed-set data, background-sound complexity and concurrent voices were especially troubling. Some concepts in the free-text data were novel, particularly difficulties with remote, broadcast, and recorded audio, prompting the creation of new themes.
Conclusions: Both forms of data indicate widespread listening differences - predominantly listening difficulties -affecting most autistic adults. Diverse types of listening difficulty are evident, potentially indicating heterogeneous underlying mechanisms, and complexity of background noise is consistently identified as an important factor. Listening difficulties are said to have substantial and varied impacts. Autistic adults are keen to share coping strategies, which are varied and usually self-devised.
Implications: Based on both the quantitative and qualitative results, we provide recommendations to improve future research and support the autistic community. The data revealing types of listening difficulties can guide better quantitative research into underlying mechanisms. Such research should take into account potential heterogeneity in listening difficulties. Suggestions for optimized collection of self-report data are also offered. Additionally, our results could be used to improve societal understanding of autistic listening differences and to create beneficial interventions for and with autistic individuals. Moreover, given the willingness of the autistic community to share coping strategies, systematic collation of these strategies could form the basis for self-help and clinical guidance.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism & Developmental Language Impairments
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 19 Dec 2023


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