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Hidden ability in autism

We are a research group at the University of Cambridge, UK, who are interested in how autistic people understand spoken language. We would like to learn more about how their brains processes spoken words, using brain imaging technologies that are gentle and fast to set up. The aim of our research is to provide a chance for autistic people to demonstrate how well they understand word meanings. We hope to acheive this by creating suitable, reliable brain imaging measures that can be used as a marker of language processing in minimally-verbal autistic children and adults.

Help us with our research 

Update (December 2022): Thank you to everyone who participated in our first phase of data collection! We have stopped collecting data now while we analyse the results. But we are still happy to hear from anyone who would be interested in taking part in our research in the future. 


If you are interested in taking part, or would like to know more, please fill out the form below and we will send you further information about the study.

If you (or your child) answer yes to the following we would like to contact you.
  • I live in the UK or Ireland 

  • My family speaks English as their first language 

  • I am not deaf or blind

We are looking for children and adults who fall into one of the following groups

  • Has an autism spectrum diagnosis, and has limited or no spoken communication

  • Has an autism spectrum diagnosis, and does have spoken language

  • Does not have autism or any other developmental condition 

We are currently collecting data in the UK, and hope to travel to Ireland in 2022. However, anyone can submit this form for more information.

Thanks for submitting!

Learn what our research is about 

This video is of Dr Selene Petit talking about why we are conducting this research. The take home message is that while each autistic person will be different, some people may understand more than we think. We hope our research will result in new brain imaging methods that could detect such hidden language processing.

Have your say!

If you are an autistic non-speaker, we would love to hear from you. We are excited to know what you think about our research and what you would like brain imaging research to address in the future. We also want to know what you would like to tell brain scientists about how your brain and body works.

You can find our questions at the end of our community update here.


The science behind the research

Standard language assessments are ineffective in measuring language comprehension in non-verbal autism, a population that accounts for around 30% of autistic people. Levels of comprehension in non-verbal children is unknown as very little research is conducted on this population. The aim of our research is to use the well-established N400 effect that is seen as a reliable neural marker of language processing (Kutas and Federmeier, 2011). However, the reliability of this effect only holds true at the group level of analysis with a detection rates in single subject analysis revealing a detection rate of typically 50-60% in neuro-typicals (Cruse et al., 2014; Rohaut et al., 2015; Coderre et al., 2019). Much of the preparation for our research into non-verbal ASD has been exploring different ways in which we could improve the reliability of this ERP at the single subject level. 

Key Publication: Petit et al. 2020

Would you like to contact us regarding this research?  

Email: Dr Alex Woolgar

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