Development of neural structure and function in autism spectrum disorder: Potential implications for learning language

Kelly L. Coburn, Diane L. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Purpose: Neurodevelopmental processes that begin during gestation and continue throughout childhood typically support language development. Understanding these processes can help us to understand the disruptions to language that occur in neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Method: For this tutorial, we conducted a focused literature review on typical postnatal brain development and structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging, diffusion tensor imaging, magnetoencephalography, and electroencephalography studies of the neurodevelopmental differences that occur in ASD. We then integrated this knowledge with the literature on evidence-based speech-language intervention practices for autistic children. Results: In ASD, structural differences include altered patterns of cortical growth and myelination. Functional differences occur at all brain levels, from lateralization of cortical functions to the rhythmic activations of single neurons. Neuronal oscillations, in particular, could help explain disrupted language development by elucidating the timing differences that contribute to altered functional connectivity, complex information processing, and speech parsing. Findings related to implicit statistical learning, explicit task learning, multisensory integration, and reinforcement in ASD are also discussed. Conclusions: Consideration of the neural differences in autistic children provides additional scientific support for current recommended language intervention practices. Recommendations consistent with these neurological findings include the use of short, simple utterances; repetition of syntactic structures using varied vocabulary; pause time; visual supports; and individualized sensory modifications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1783-1797
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican journal of speech-language pathology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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