Copying others is important for development. It provides a way to learn about the physical world, and a context for children to practice and develop their skills for interacting with others. There is evidence to suggest that children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (Autism) imitate less often and less accurately than non-autistic children. While several explanatory theories have been put forward for these findings, the specific reasons for imitation difficulties remain unclear.
Theories of Reduced Social Motivation suggest that Autistic children may not copy others because their interest in what other people are doing is reduced. Theories of Motor-execution Disturbances, by contrast, suggest that Autistic children may not copy others because they have difficulties performing the actions they have seen. In my Honours research project this year, working with Dr. Kristelle Hudry and Dr. Giacomo Vivanti, I explored to what extent these two theories contribute to imitation difficulties in young Autistic children.
I asked 35 preschool Autistic children and 20 children without developmental difficulties to imitate a simple and a more complex action demonstrated on an Apple® iPad® by either a socially engaging and a neutral model. The Autistic children were also assessed for social motivation and fine motor abilities – using standard tests which are often used in research and clinical practice – to see whether these abilities were related to imitation performance.
I found that Autistic children imitated others slightly less often and less accurately. In particular, they imitated the complex actions less often and less accurately than the simple actions, but interestingly, only when the model was socially engaging. However, neither social motivation nor fine motor abilities were related to imitation performance in Autistic children.
In conclusion, the findings from my study suggest that neither reduced social motivation nor motor-execution difficulties alone can fully explain why Autistic children imitate less often and less accurately than children without developmental difficulties. Rather, imitation performance in Autism may be an outcome of these social and motor factors combined.
Prior to this study, the contribution of reduced social motivation and motor-related disturbances to imitation in Autism had rarely been explored within a single study. The results of my Honours research, therefore, provide some new insights into why Autistic children imitate others less often and less accurately than children without developmental difficulties.
I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all the children involved in this study as well as their parents for bringing them to OTARC at La Trobe University. Without you, research such as this would not be possible. This past year of research, combined with several years of working with parents and children in therapy delivery, has inspired me to continue working to understand early development in Autism. I am currently working as a research assistant, and hope next year to start my doctoral studies.
By OTARC Honours student, Ms Lacey Chetcuti
Published December 2015