‘Talking things through in their head’ may aid children with autism

Talking to yourself in your head may not be such a bizarre pastime.  It may actually be an important developmental tool.

A new study out of Durham University in England suggests that helping children with autism to ‘talk things through in their head’ could eventually help them to perform more complicated tasks – eventually helping them to lead more independent lives.

The research team, led by Dr. Dave Williams, at the department of psychology at Durham University, told FoxNews.com he found that using ‘inner speech’ is used by those with autism, but may be absent when they are planning complicated assignments.

“Most people in the typical population talk to themselves in their heads in order to solve problems,” Williams said.  “We think this ability to talk to ourselves in our heads is related to how well we communicate to other people.  Autism is a disorder of communication. Even though they speak overtly with language, they don’t tend to think it in their heads.”

The researchers observed a group of high-functioning adults with ASD and a comparison control group (neurotypical subjects) as both groups completed a task known as the Tower of London.  The test – which is also a popular mathematical puzzle – consists of five colored discs that are arranged on three pegs.  The object of the puzzle is to transform one arrangement of the disks between the pegs, one disk at a time.
In order to complete the task in as few moves as possible, a fair amount of planning is needed.

After working on the puzzles under normal conditions, both groups were asked to solve it again as they repeated a certain word out loud – either ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Thursday.’  Repeating words or phrases over and over is a way to suppress inner speech that helps people to plan.

“The neurotypical subjects took many more moves to complete this task when we interrupted their verbal thinking, whereas the participants with autism weren’t affected at all with this interruption,” Williams said.  “So it ultimately suggests they weren’t using verbal thinking in the first place.”

After having established this lack of internal dialogue for autism patients, Williams and his team hope to expand on their research and eventually develop ways to train people with autism to utilize language in their through processes.  They believe that if developing children with autism can learn to , they can learn to do more complex tasks much more efficiently.

“For some very high functioning adults with autism, they still find employment very difficult,” Williams said.  “If using this kind of dialogue can help them to behave more flexibly, that can lead to them being employed more readily and taking care of themselves more often.”

Caroline Hattersley, the Head of Information, Advice and Advocacy at the National Autistic Society, is hopeful about the implications of Williams’ study.

“This study presents some interesting results and could further our understanding of autism,” Hattersley said in a statement.  “If the findings are replicated on a wider scale they could have a significant impact on how we develop strategies to support children with the disability.”

Williams said no matter what, the key to learning more about autism lies in the root of the problem: communication.

“Social communication problems are the absolute core feature of autism along with behavioral inflexibility and rigidity,” Williams said.  “Any approach to curing autism has to come from that angle.”

But even with their research, Williams said they’ve only scratched the surface of the problem.

“It’s one piece in the jigsaw.  It’s not a cure for all their problems, but it could help quite a lot,” Williams said.