Autism Affects Social Mimicry Skills
April 9, 2013

Autistic Children’s Approach To Copying Adults Emphasizes Social Aspects Of Mimicry

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While growing children typically copy all of their parents´ behavior, youngsters suffering from autism are more selective about which actions they mimic, according to a new study published in Monday´s edition of the journal Current Biology.

Psychologists from the University of Nottingham in the UK have discovered that autistic children will omit any action that seems “silly” or unnecessary, focusing instead on those activities that they viewed as useful or beneficial.

The discovery, they claim, shows that the importance of the social nature of copying unnecessary behaviors, as well as the difficulty that children with autism have with those social aspects of imitation.

“Our study showed that typically developing children copy everything an adult does, even when they know that some of the actions are 'silly,´” lead researcher Dr. Antonia Hamilton of the university´s school of psychology said in a statement.

“In contrast, the children with autism only copied the useful actions — in a way, they are getting the job done more efficiently than the typical children,” she added. “These results show us that copying unnecessary actions is a social phenomenon, it is not just about learning how to use objects.”

Hamilton and her colleagues tested 31 children suffering from autism spectrum disorders, 30 normally developing children with the same level of linguistic skull, and 30 normally developing children who were matched by age.

Each child was asked to watch closely as an adult demonstrated how to retrieve a toy from a box or build a simple object. Those demonstrations included two essential actions (such as unclasping and removing a container lid) and one extraneous action (such as tapping the top of the box twice).

The researchers then instructed the children to get or make the toy as quickly as possible, without requiring them to copy all of the adult´s actions precisely as they had seen them. More than 97 percent of the youngsters were able to complete the task. Normally-developing children copied between 43 and 57 percent of the unnecessary actions, while autistic children only copied 22 percent of them.

Each child was then asked to watch the demonstration a second time, and then judge each action as being either “sensible” or “silly.” All of the children were able to do so, but the typically-developing children found it to be easier.

“This means that typical children copied the unnecessary actions even though they know the actions are silly,” the university explained. “These results show a found a striking difference between autistic and typical children in both whether they copied the unnecessary actions and how they discriminated between the rationality of each action.”

“The scientists argue that typical children copy everything an adult does because they are more eager to please and to 'fit in,´” they added. “The children with autism showed significantly less over imitation but this was not linked to weak motor skills as all the unnecessary actions were simple and familiar and less complex than others in the sequence. It was also not driven by superior reasoning skills because the autistic children performed worse on the task to accurately judge the rationality of each task.”