Research Article: What’s in a name? A preliminary event-related potential study of response to name in preschool children with and without autism spectrum disorder

Date Published: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Rebecca P. Thomas, Leah A. L. Wang, Whitney Guthrie, Meredith Cola, Joseph P. McCleery, Juhi Pandey, Robert T. Schultz, Judith S. Miller, Tal Kenet.


The ability to selectively respond to one’s own name is important for social and language development, and is disrupted in atypically developing populations (e.g., autism spectrum disorder). Research with typically developing samples using event-related potentials (ERPs) has demonstrated that the subject’s own name (SON) is differentiated from other stimuli at both early sensory and later cognitive stages of auditory processing. While neural indices of response to name have been researched extensively in adults, no such studies have been conducted with typically developing preschool children or children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The present study investigated ERP response to name in a sample of typically developing (TD) preschoolers (n = 19; mean age = 4.3 years) as well as a small, exploratory comparison group of preschoolers with ASD (n = 13; mean age = 4.4 years). TD preschoolers exhibited significantly greater negativity to SON over frontal regions than to an unfamiliar nonsense name, consistent with the adult SON negativity component. This component was present whether the name was spoken by a parent or an unfamiliar adult, suggesting that it reflects SON-specific processing rather than broad self-relevant information processing. Comparing preschoolers with ASD to the TD children revealed a significant SON negativity component across both groups. The amplitude of the SON negativity response was significantly correlated with social variables in the ASD group, though these correlations did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. This study is the first to demonstrate the presence of the SON component in preschool children with and without ASD.

Partial Text

Names are some of the most influential auditory stimuli in a child’s environment. Studies have suggested that an infant’s own name is an early social cue that guides their attention to meaningful stimuli in the environment and facilitates skills such as social referencing [1]. Evidence indicates that typically developing infants orient to the sound of their own names by the time they are six months old [2,3], and that they use familiar names to segment speech in early language comprehension [4]. Names remain one of the most socially important stimuli as children experience an incredibly rapid expansion of social, communicative, and language skills from infancy to early childhood.

The aim of this study was to examine the neural mechanisms underlying the auditory processing response to name in typically developing preschoolers, with an additional exploratory pilot comparison of a sample of chronological age-matched children with ASD. This is the first study to 1) examine these mechanisms using ERPs in preschool-aged children, and 2) investigate the differential contribution of name (own vs. other) and speaker familiarity (parent vs. stranger). These data present novel information on the factors that influence how naturalistic, socially salient auditory information is processed in young children.

The current findings are the first to indicate that the SON negativity component exists in typically developing three- to five-year-old children, albeit in a developmentally appropriate later time window than in typically developing adults. Furthermore, our preliminary findings with a chronological age-matched sample of children with ASD suggest that they also exhibit the SON negativity component. Future research should more specifically examine how and when this component develops in both populations, as this brain response likely contributes not only to social development but also to linguistic and cognitive development as children learn to use their names to guide and orient their attention and establish relevant environmental cues.