Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impairments in both language and social cognition. Despite much research on the neurobiological underpinnings of autism in adults, very few studies have examined the neural bases within a developmental framework. Those few studies that have often focus on the neural bases underlying either language or social cognition separately, but not both. Although language and social cognition are traditionally examined as independent behavioral domains, behavioral evidence from typical children suggests that language acquisition depends on social processes, such as responding to joint attention bids from a caregiver. In autism, joint attention deficits are severe and correlate with later language impairments. The goal of this proposal is to identify the shared and distinct neural substrates for social and language processing in typical development and in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). To achieve this goal, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data will be acquired from 24 typical adults (12 male, 12 female), 24 typical 5-8 year-old children (12 male, 12 female), 24 typical 9-12 year-old children (12 male, 12 female), and 15 9-12 year-old children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (12 male, 3 female) during performance of two separate tasks: responding to joint attention bids and narrative comprehension. Analyses will be conducted to identify the neural bases underlying these separate tasks as well as the amount of shared neural overlap between these tasks within the same subjects. With this design age- and gender-related analyses in typical development and age- and performance-related analyses in autism can be conducted. The 15 ASD children (12 male, 3 female) will be compared to two gender-matched control groups: one age-matched control group (9-12 years) and one performance-matched control group (5-8 years). The control groups for the ASD children will be comprised of a subset of the typically developing children.
By addressing questions of both typical and atypical development in the same proposal, greater insights can be gained into the aberrant developmental trajectory underlying both social and linguistic development in ASD. Pinpointing the common neural bases of these primary deficits in ASD may help to guide early intervention and provide neural regions of focus to aid in the search for shared microstructural and genetic bases of these deficits.
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