To acquire language, children must build phonemic representations of their native language, learn to associate auditory words to visual objects and assemble a lexicon. It is not clear however, whether the limited linguistic ability seen in minimally-verbal (MV) children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) relates to deficits in cortical representation of an object and/or in linking an object to its semantic information. This EEG-based study investigated neural mechanisms underlying visual processing of common objects in MV-ASD and control children. Ten MV-ASD children, 4- to 7- years-old and 15 age/gender-matched controls, were presented with a picture-word matching paradigm. Time-frequency analyses were conducted at the sources generating the event-related responses at both early and late visual processing. Permutation testing identified spectral power and phase coherence clusters that significantly differed between the groups. As compared to controls, MV-ASD children exhibited smaller amplitudes and longer source latencies; decreased gamma and theta power with less theta phase coherence in occipital regions, and reduced frontal gamma power. Our results confirm that visual processing is altered in MV-ASD children and suggest that some of the linguistic differences observed in these children arise from impaired object/label cortical representations and reduced allocation of attention, which would impact lexical acquisition.
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