Intact Automatic Imitation and Typical Spatial Compatibility in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Challenging the Broken Mirror Theory.
Sowden S., Koehne S., Catmur C., Dziobek I., Bird G.
A lack of imitative behavior is frequently described as a core feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and is consistent with claims of mirror neuron system dysfunction in these individuals. Previous research has questioned this characterization of ASD however, arguing that when tests of automatic imitation are used--which do not require higher-level cognitive processing--imitative behavior is intact or even enhanced in individuals with ASD. In Experiment 1, 60 adult individuals with ASD and a matched Control group completed an automatic imitation task in which they were required to perform an index or a middle finger lift while observing a hand making either the same, or the alternate, finger movement. Both groups demonstrated a significant imitation effect whereby actions were executed faster when preceded by observation of the same action, than when preceded by the alternate action. The magnitude of this "imitation effect" was statistically indistinguishable in the ASD and Control groups. Experiment 2 utilized an improved automatic imitation paradigm to demonstrate that, when automatic imitation effects are isolated from those due to spatial compatibility, increasing autism symptom severity is associated with an increased tendency to imitate. Notably, there was no association between autism symptom severity and spatial compatibility, demonstrating the specificity of the link between ASD symptoms and increased imitation. These results provide evidence against claims of a lack of imitative behavior in ASD, and challenge the "Broken Mirror Theory of Autism."