Could hearing devices help kids with autism?

New research under way at Auckland University will trial remote microphone hearing aids to see if they help autism-impaired children better pick up the vital emotional cues used in people's facial expressions and speech.

What linguists call prosody describes the variations in timing, pitch and stress patterns in speech that help people convey meaning and emotion.

For children, being able to perceive and understand this, and combine it with corresponding facial expressions, is crucial for social communication skills.

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When these abilities are impaired by conditions such as autism, children find it difficult to interact and form relationships with peers and other important figures in their everyday lives.

"By enhancing the speech signals coming through to them with hearing devices, we think it may help them better perceive those small speech cues people use when they speak," said researcher Joan Leung, who is leading the PhD project.

She plans to recruit 60 school-aged children, half of them with autism spectrum disorder, to take part in face-to-speech matching exercises.

The children will wear remote microphone hearing aids and will then undertake computer-based exercises that will reveal any improvements.

Parents willing to enter their children in the study can contact Ms Leung at joan.leung@auckland.ac.nz