Individual differences in auditory processing in specific language impairment: a follow-up study using event-related potentials and behavioural thresholds.
Bishop DVM., McArthur GM.
It has frequently been claimed that children with specific language impairment (SLI) have impaired auditory perception, but there is much controversy about the role of such deficits in causing their language problems, and it has been difficult to establish solid, replicable findings in this area. Discrepancies in this field may arise because (a) a focus on mean results obscures the heterogeneity in the population and (b) insufficient attention has been paid to maturational aspects of auditory processing. We conducted a study of 16 young people with specific language impairment (SLI) and 16 control participants, 24 of whom had had auditory event-related potentials (ERPs) and frequency discrimination thresholds assessed 18 months previously. When originally assessed, around one third of the listeners with SLI had poor behavioural frequency discrimination thresholds, and these tended to be the younger participants. However, most of the SLI group had age-inappropriate late components of the auditory ERP, regardless of their frequency discrimination. At follow-up, the behavioural thresholds of those with poor frequency discrimination improved, though some remained outside the control range. At follow-up, ERPs for many of the individuals in the SLI group were still not age-appropriate. In several cases, waveforms of individuals in the SLI group resembled those of younger typically-developing children, though in other cases the waveform was unlike that of control cases at any age. Electrophysiological methods may reveal underlying immaturity or other abnormality of auditory processing even when behavioural thresholds look normal. This study emphasises the variability seen in SLI, and the importance of studying individual cases rather than focusing on group means.