Names prompt distinct brain activity in preschoolers

A study from Penn and CHOP found that when preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder hear their name, their neural patterns match those of their typically developing peers. The finding held regardless of whether the child’s mom or a stranger called the name.

Infants as young as 6 months old can typically recognize and respond to their own name. It’s an important skill for language development and social growth, one that children with autism spectrum disorder often struggle with.

A team from Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) wanted to understand what brain activity looks like when children from two groups—typically developing preschoolers and preschoolers with autism—hear their name. 

As it turns out, children in both groups show a preference for their own name and exhibit neural patterns akin to those observed in adult brains that are experiencing similar stimuli. What’s more, this observation holds regardless of whether the child’s mom or a stranger is the one calling the name. The researchers published their findings in the journal PLOS One.  

A child wearing an electroencephalogram cap looking at a bright screen, with someone standing nearby.
A child wearing the EEG cap participants used during trials of the study. This child is older than the study group, which ranged in age from 3 to 5 years old and skewed heavily male. (Photo: Suzanne Slattery)

“We expected we might see differences in the brain activity, because we know an early hallmark of autism spectrum disorder is a lack of behavioral response and orienting when someone calls their name,” says Leah Wang, a doctoral student in Penn’s Psychology Department, a researcher at CHOP’s Center for Autism Research, and co-first author of the paper. “It’s not completely absent, but we know there’s diminished frequency and consistency.”

Instead, she continues, the study found that the participants with autism and those in the typically developing group showed similar brain activity in response to their own names, indicating that children in both groups differentiated their names from other sounds. This finding suggests “there might be other processes we should look into contributing to this diminished behavioral responding,” she adds. 

To get a picture of the brain activity prompted by this experience, Wang and colleagues, including University of Connecticut doctoral student and co-first author Rebecca Thomas, recruited 19 typically developing 3- to 5-year-olds and 13 with autism. The experiment, which included more than 1,000 trials, included four stimuli: mom calling the child’s name, mom calling a made-up name, or a stranger calling both names. The participants, the majority of whom were male, wore an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap during each trial.

“The sounds were all randomized,” explains Thomas. “They didn’t always hear mom calling their name first, for instance. The stimuli were all mixed up. Once we collected EEG data, we went through to pinpoint the brain signals that aligned with certain stimuli.” For example, what does the electrical signal look like when the mother says the name compared with the stranger? Does this look the same or different if the child has autism spectrum disorder? 

Answering these questions matters because recognizing your name can act as an important social marker of attention. “It serves as an anchor for the rest of your social development,” Thomas says. “It helps you to identify when someone is talking to you and whether you should be paying attention. You can imagine that a child who is not consistently responding to his or her name might be missing out on interactions.” 

In the future, the scientists would like the ability to assess sub-groups within the broader autism spectrum disorder population, which will require a much larger sample size than the current work. They’re also interested in studying younger populations and in changing their secondary stimuli to something more relevant to the child, like a word describing a favorite toy rather than a made-up name. 

For now, the researchers say they hope the work will simply encourage additional interest in studying neural activity in children with autism. “We call it ‘preliminary’ because we want to get these results out there and get research going on this topic,” says Wang, who is also part of CHOP’s Center for Autism Research. “Our study is a really nice first step.” 

The authors received no specific funding for this work. 

Other researchers who contributed to the work included Whitney Guthrie and Meredith Cola from the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Joseph McCleery of CAR and Saint Joseph’s University; Juhi Pandey and Judith Miller of CAR and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; and Robert Schultz of CAR, the Perelman School of Medicine, and the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.