From word reading to multisentence comprehension: Improvements in brain activity in children with autism after reading intervention
Background: Children with ASD show a unique reading profile characterized by decoding abilities equivalent to verbal abilities, but with lower comprehension skills. Neuroimaging studies have found recruitment of regions primarily associated with visual processing (e.g., fusiform gyrus and medial parietal cortex), but reduced activation in frontal and temporal regions, when reading in adults with ASD. The purpose of this study was to assess neural changes associated with an intense reading intervention program in children with ASD using three fMRI tasks of reading.
Methods: 25 children with ASD were randomly assigned to a treatment (ASD-EXP) or waitlist group (ASD-WLC). Children participated in a reading intervention program (4-hour sessions per day, 5 days a week for 10 weeks). We utilized three tasks: word, sentence, and multisentence processing, each with differential demands of reading comprehension. fMRI data were acquired at each of two scanning sessions 10-weeks apart.
Results: Across tasks, post-intervention results revealed that the ASD-EXP group showed greater activation in bilateral precentral gyrus and the postcentral gyrus, visual processing regions (e.g., occipital cortex, fusiform gyrus), and frontal regions. In the word task, left thalamus and the right angular gyrus (AG) activation was unique to the ASD-EXP group post-intervention. Sentence tasks showed differential activation of core language areas (e.g., IFG, IPL) post-intervention.
Conclusions: Our results provide evidence for differential recruitment of brain regions based on task demands in children with ASD, and support the potential of targeted interventions to alter brain activation in response to positive gains in treatment. Children with ASD have a different reading profile from other reading disorders that needs to be specifically targeted in interventions.