What a Song Reveals About Vocal Imitation Deficits for Autistic Individuals

Summary: Autistic children and adults are better at holding and imitating relative pitch than they are with absolute pitch across both speech and song.

Source: University at Buffalo

A new paper comparing the ability to match pitch and duration in speech and song is providing valuable insight into vocal imitation deficits for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The results show how individuals with ASD perform quite differently in two different categories of pitch imitation, a finding that has broad implications when thinking about the challenges associated with autism, including difficulties when interacting with others and making social connections.

“This project shows that some of the conclusions we may want to draw about autism from other tasks may not be as widely generalizable as we think,” says Peter Pfordresher, a professor of psychology in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences and a co-author of the study, which was led by Fang Liu, associate professor of psychology and clinical language sciences at the University of Reading.

The research team found that autistic children and adults were better at imitating and holding relative pitch than they were with absolute pitch across both speech and music domains. There’s a significant distinction between the two that is illustrated using the melody associated with the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Absolute pitch is the specific note associated with each syllable in a song. Think about the seven notes you would produce when singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Absolute pitch is the ability to sing each note correctly, essentially matching the notes after hearing the tune. This definition differs from what musical performers would call absolute, or sometimes, perfect pitch, which refers to the ability to identify or sing a note without an immediate reference.

Relative pitch, meanwhile, is the pitch change from one note to the next, or the interval separating the pitch in the first syllable of “Mary” from the word’s second syllable.

“Previous research in areas such as action imitation has suggested that people with ASD can reproduce the end goal of another’s action, but not the exact form in which the action is carried out. That’s where we see atypical imitation,” says Liu.

As an example, Liu says that an autistic individual, when asked to imitate the action of reaching for a cup, might just get the cup without trying to mimic the exact trajectory of the arm as it goes through the reaching motion.

“Our research on vocal imitation suggests something similar: Autistic participants performed better on imitating the structure of a tune (relative pitch) than they did on the exact form (absolute pitch).”

This shows a little girl singing and playing a toy guitar
The research team found that autistic children and adults were better at imitating and holding relative pitch than they were with absolute pitch across both speech and music domains. Image is in the public domain

And this has significance when thinking about music in a broad cultural sense.

Pfordresher, an expert on the relationship between music and language, says there is mounting evidence demonstrating the importance of collective interactions with music, in particular its ability to promote social bonding.

“People with autism have difficulties making social connections with people,” says Pfordresher. “Relative pitch is generally considered to be more important for music. However, absolute pitch is critical if you’re singing with somebody, and singing in unison is important for making social connections.”

“Clinicians working with autistic individuals may want to focus on these forms of imitation to help those with ASD foster musical interactions that could facilitate their ability to bond with others and to form relationships.”

About this autism research news

Author: Bert Gambini
Source: University at Buffalo
Contact: Bert Gambini – University at Buffalo
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are impaired in absolute but not relative pitch and duration matching in speech and song imitation” by Peter Pfordresher et al. Autism Research


Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are impaired in absolute but not relative pitch and duration matching in speech and song imitation

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often exhibit atypical imitation. However, few studies have identified clear quantitative characteristics of vocal imitation in ASD.

This study investigated imitation of speech and song in English-speaking individuals with and without ASD and its modulation by age. Participants consisted of 25 autistic children and 19 autistic adults, who were compared to 25 children and 19 adults with typical development matched on age, gender, musical training, and cognitive abilities. The task required participants to imitate speech and song stimuli with varying pitch and duration patterns. Acoustic analyses of the imitation performance suggested that individuals with

ASD were worse than controls on absolute pitch and duration matching for both speech and song imitation, although they performed as well as controls on relative pitch and duration matching. Furthermore, the two groups produced similar numbers of pitch contour, pitch interval-, and time errors. Across both groups, sung pitch was imitated more accurately than spoken pitch, whereas spoken duration was imitated more accurately than sung duration. Children imitated spoken pitch more accurately than adults when it came to speech stimuli, whereas age showed no significant relationship to song imitation.

These results reveal a vocal imitation deficit across speech and music domains in ASD that is specific to absolute pitch and duration matching.

This finding provides evidence for shared mechanisms between speech and song imitation, which involves independent implementation of relative versus absolute features.

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