Change detection in children with autism: an auditory event-related fMRI study.


Autism involves impairments in communication and social interaction, as well as high levels of repetitive, stereotypic, and ritualistic behaviours, and extreme resistance to change. This latter dimension, whilst required for a diagnosis, has received less research attention. We hypothesise that this extreme resistance to change in autism is rooted in atypical processing of unexpected stimuli. We tested this using auditory event-related fMRI to determine regional brain activity associated with passive detection of infrequently occurring frequency-deviant and complex novel sounds in a no-task condition. Participants were twelve 10- to 15-year-old children with autism and a group of 12 age- and sex-matched healthy controls. During deviance detection, significant activation common to both groups was located in the superior temporal and inferior frontal gyri. During 'novelty detection', both groups showed activity in the superior temporal gyrus, the temporo-parietal junction, the superior and inferior frontal gyri, and the cingulate gyrus. Children with autism showed reduced activation of the left anterior cingulate cortex during both deviance and novelty detection. During novelty detection, children with autism also showed reduced activation in the bilateral temporo-parietal region and in the right inferior and middle frontal areas. This study confirms previous evidence from ERP studies of atypical brain function related to automatic change detection in autism. Abnormalities involved a cortical network known to have a role in attention switching and attentional resource distribution. These results throw light on the neurophysiological processes underlying autistic 'resistance to change'.