News Release

Children with autism need to be taught in smaller groups, pilot study confirms

Peer-Reviewed Publication

City College of New York

NEW YORK, July 1, 2009 – Since the 1970s, there has been much debate surrounding the fact that individuals with autism have difficulty in understanding speech in situations where there is background speech or noise.

Today, at the annual meeting of the International Multisensory Research Forum (June 29th – July 2nd) being held at The City College of New York (CCNY), neuroscientists announced conclusive evidence to verify this fact.

Speaking at the conference, Dr. John J. Foxe, Professor of Neuroscience at CCNY said: "Sensory integration dysfunction has long been speculated to be a core component of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but there has been precious little hard empirical evidence to support this notion. Viewing a speaker's articulatory movements can greatly improve a listener's ability to understand spoken words, and this is especially the case under noisy environmental conditions."Delegates to the 10th annual meeting of the International Multisensory Research Forum view poster session in the Lincoln Corridor of Shepard Hall.

"These results are the first of their kind to verify that children with autism have substantial difficulties in these situations, and this has major implications for how we go about teaching these children in the classroom," he continued. "Children with autism may become distressed in large classroom settings simply because they are unable to understand basic speech if the environment is sufficiently noisy.

"We should start to pay attention to the need for smaller numbers in the classroom and we need to carefully control the levels of background noise that these kids are exposed to. Imagine how frustrating it must be to sit in a classroom without being able to properly understand what the teacher or your classmates are saying to you.

"Being able to detect speech in noise plays a vital role in how we communicate with each other because our listening environments are almost never quiet. Even the hum of air conditioners or fans that we can easily ignore may adversely impact these children's ability to understand speech in the classroom.

"Our data show that the multisensory speech system develops relatively slowly across the childhood years and that considerable tuning of this system continues to occur even into early adolescence. Our data suggest that children with Autism lag almost 5 years behind typically developing children in this crucial multisensory ability."

Professor Foxe concluded that further studies may result in advances in the understanding of ASD and the communication abilities of individuals with autism by identifying the neural mechanisms that are at the root of these multisensory deficits. This will be an important step if viable intervention and training strategies are to be developed.


The 10th International Multisensory Research Forum (IMRF) began Monday, June 29, and continues until Thursday, July 2. This four-day meeting has brought together more than 400 scientists from around the world.

IMRF provides an invaluable platform for neuroscientists to stay abreast of the latest advances in multisensory research. The conference features presentations and talks by prominent researchers in the field of multisensory research, from a host of different backgrounds – neurophysiology, anatomy, psychophysics, development and modeling – all interested in how the senses combine and interact to drive perception and behavior.

"This is one of the largest forums in the world whereby neuroscientists have the opportunity to offer insights, exchange, debate and collaborate on current research into multisensory integration, most of which have numerous practical everyday applications, for example, the clinical profession working in the area of autism," said Dr. Sophie Molholm, Associate Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at CCNY and local organizer for the conference.

Conference keynote speakers:

Dr. Nikos Logothetis, Director, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, University of Tübingen (Germany) – "Multisensory Integration: Current Results and Future Methodologies"

Dr. Dora Angelaki, Alumni Endowed Professor of Neurobiology and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Washington University – "Melding of minds: Combination of sensory cues improves spatial perception"

Dr. Jon Kaas, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Professor of Cell Biology, Vanderbilt University – "The organization of modules in posterior parietal cortex of primates for specific sensorimotor functions"

For further information and a detailed conference program please visit:

About IMRF

IMRF held its inaugural meeting in 1999 in Oxford, England. Since then, alternating between European and North American locations, the IMRF meeting has been held each year and has grown to become the leading meeting for multisensory research. The 2007 IMRF meeting was the first to be held in Australasia.

Previous IMRF annual meetings have been held in Oxford (England), Tarrytown (New York, USA), Geneva (Switzerland), Hamilton (Ontario, Canada), Sitges (Barcelona, Spain), Rovereto (Italy), Dublin (Ireland), Sydney (Australia), and Hamburg (Germany). Programs of past meetings are available at

About The City College of New York

Since 1847 The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. Over 15,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; The School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture (SAUDLA); The School of Education; The Grove School of Engineering, and The Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education. For additional information, visit

IMRF Media Contact: Edel Flynn, PR & Communications Manager, Department of Psychology, The City College of New York, 347-268 1540,

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