P3 responses to prosodic stimuli in adult autistic subjects

R. Erwin, D. Van Lancker, D. Guthrie, J. Schwafel, P. Tanguay, J. S. Buchwald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Autistic persons are known to have serious abnormalities in speech prosody. The present study attempted to ascertain whether autistic persons could discriminate and/or recognize prosodic contrasts in auditory stimuli. A group of 11 adult autistic subjects with normal IQ and an age-matched group of normal subjects were studied electrophysiologically and behaviorally during presentations of prosodic and phonemic stimuli. The cognitive P3 potential was recorded in response to rare (20%)/frequent (80%) presentations of phonemic stimuli, 'ba/pa', linguistic-prosodic stimuli, 'Bob'. (statement)/'Bob?' (question), and emotional-prosodic stimuli, 'Bob' (happy)/'Bob' (happy)/'Bob' (angry). Behaviorally, auditory discrimination was tested by requiring a button-press response to each presentation of the rare target stimulus and cognitive association was tested by requiring a match between the verbalized stimulus and an appropriate picture/word. Contrary to our hypothesis, the autistic subjects generally showed normal P3 responses to all stimuli and performed at a normal level in all behavioral tests. However, a significant autistic P3 response to the phoneme 'pa' was not demonstrated. This surprising result was reexamined and shown to reflect an unusually large autistic response to 'pa' as the frequent stimulus in the first recording block, this initial hyper-reactivity prevented a 'frequent/rare' differential when 'pa' was presented as the rare stimulus in a later recording block. In the P3 latency window, both the autistic and control groups showed the largest amplitude responses to emotional-prosodic stimuli; neither the N1 nor P2 showed these stimulus effects. Thus, 'emotional sounds' appear to be particularly effective in activating the neural substrate of the P3 generator system. Overall, these data indicate remarkably normal P3 and behavioral processing of prosodic stimuli by the high-functioning autistic subjects of this study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)561-571
Number of pages11
JournalElectroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology/ Evoked Potentials
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1991


  • Autism
  • Event-related potentials
  • Linguistic stimuli
  • P3
  • Prosody

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Clinical Neurology


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