We often see in the media autistic savants who can write and play music like grand masters with incredible talent and flourish. In fact, of autistic savants and savants in general, having extraordinary musical talent is one of the most common advantages. A new study published in the journal Cognition, suggests a reason for it. Those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have superior hearing. 

Some of the advantages include “enhanced pitch discrimination” and “increased auditory perceptual capacity.” Even so, ASD people often find normal, neutral sounds grating. This may be because their auditory system takes in more sound than neurotypical people. Said differently, they have a higher capacity.

Investigators conducted two behavioral experiments to discover these differences in auditory perception and how it led to certain advantages and challenges for those with ASD. Anna Remington and Jake Fairnie were the two researchers who conducted the study. They hail from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education, at the UCL Institute of Education, in the UK.

The study participants were 20 young adults with ASD and 20 neurotypical young adults, all between the ages of 17 and 34. They each participated in two computer-based tests. In the first, an audio file with a bunch of animal sounds was played and the listener had to determine if they heard a dog barking or a lion roaring within the jumble. Those with better auditory perception would have an advantage in this task. Participants with autism ended up scoring much higher than those in the control group, Remington and Fairnie found.

In the second task, participants listened to a recording of people at a party. They overheard a conversation and had to answer questions about it at the end. To rankle autistic participants, a portion of the recording had a man come in and say repeatedly “I’m a gorilla, I’m a gorilla...” 47% of those with ASD were thrown off by this, compared to only 12% of the typical group. So it seems that increased perception has advantages and disadvantages.

The disadvantage is seemingly innocuous sounds can be very irritating to those with ASD. Getty Images.

Originally, we thought that those with autism didn’t like innocuous sounds, merely because they had difficulty filtering them out. Now we know: it’s because they process auditory information differently and such sounds overload their circuits, so to speak.

This information might help us develop better strategies to cater to their needs. It can also help children with ASD learn and cope with difficulties better in and out of the classroom. In addition, this discovery could also help experts tailor interventions for those with ASD who find themselves struggling in certain environments or situations. 

In recent years, we’ve noticed that sensory information is processed differently in those who are autistic. But this isn’t in actuality a disadvantage. In fact, many people with ASD can perform visual or auditory tasks far better than neurotypical people can.

To hear a leading emerging theory on what might cause autism, click here: