UNT faculty to create auditory processing training model for children and young adults with autism

Tuesday, January 24, 2017 - 20:20

DENTON (UNT), Texas — While concentrating on a classroom lesson or assignment, most elementary and secondary school students have learned to filter out typical background noise, such as other students walking by the classroom door or sounds from outside. But students with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have difficulty with auditory filtering — the ability to process speech, complete tasks and function in the presence of background noise.

Erin Schafer, associate professor in the University of North Texas’ Department of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology, noted that up to 80 percent of students on the autism spectrum need some sort of special education support. Those with autism, she said, often have difficulty listening and communicating with teachers and other students.

Schafer; Kamakshi Gopal, professor in UNT’s Department of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology; and Lauren Mathews, senior lecturer in the department, will create and test a model for auditory processing training to enhance communication skills in children and young adults who have been diagnosed as high functioning on the Autism Spectrum Disorder scale — a model that the researchers say could be adopted by Texas schools in the future. The research is being funded with a two-year, $378,885 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.  

The researchers will recruit 60 students, ages 9 to 21 years. Each student, and at least one parent if the student is under age 18, will come to the UNT Speech and Hearing Center three times a week for 12 weeks to complete computer-based listening training, as well as one-on-one training with a speech-language pathologist to improve understanding of speech and language in noise.

In addition, each student will use digital, remote-microphone technology to improve signal-to-noise ratio. The technology includes a wireless receiver that the student wears in the ears and a microphone and transmitter for the person primarily talking to the student. The device directs the talker’s voice directly into the listener’s ear at a comfortable volume to improve the listener’s focus and attention to the primary signal.

The students will complete auditory processing and behavioral and physiological tests before starting the training and immediately after the 12 weeks of training. They will be tested again 12 weeks after the training.

"Our goal is to use these various tests to identify changes in listening skills that our training can bring about in the students," Gopal said.

Schafer’s previous research showed that remote-microphone technology improves attention and speech understanding in background noise in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or both conditions. Eleven children participated in her most recent study.

"Parents reported great benefits for their children. One child even became interested in talking with and helping a parent during a shopping trip, instead of staying silent," Schafer said.

Mathews directs a social interaction skills group for children with autism, ages 7-11, in the UNT Speech and Hearing Center. She also has observed the benefit of remote-microphone technology to improve attention and participation.

"One little girl is paying more attention to me than she ever has, and the other children are noticing," Mathews said.

For more information about the study, contact Schafer at 940-369-7433 or Erin.Schafer@unt.edu.

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