International Meeting for Autism Research: Spontaneous Imitation and Social Synchrony in 24-Month-Old Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Spontaneous Imitation and Social Synchrony in 24-Month-Old Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
9:00 AM
T. V. Barker , Center for Autism and Related Disorders, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, MD
R. Landa , Center for Autism and Related Disorders, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, MD
Background: Research has consistently demonstrated that preschool and school-aged children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show marked deficits in their ability to imitate. The importance of imitation in early development is evident in its relationship with language, play, and social functioning. Given the important role that imitation plays in social functioning for older children with ASD, very early spontaneous imitation ability may play a pivotal role in a child’s ability to engage with others in a synchronized way. This study is the first to examine correlates of spontaneous imitation in 24-month-old toddlers with ASD.
Objectives: 1. Do 24-month-old toddlers with ASD spontaneously imitate during semi-structured play with an unfamiliar adult? 2. If so, what is the relationship between the quality of imitation and overall social synchrony with others, as well as concurrent fine motor skills and nonverbal cognition?
Methods: Seventeen toddlers (mean age=24.4 months) participated in a prospective, longitudinal study of infant siblings of children with autism. Participants in this imitation study received ASD diagnosis at 36 months of age based on gold standard diagnostic criteria (ADOS, ADI, & expert clinical judgment). The measures for spontaneous imitation were extracted from videotaped footage of an adapted version of the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales Developmental Profile (CSBS DP; Wetherby and Prizant, 2002). At specified times during the CSBS DP, the examiner modeled simple play actions with objects, then placed the object within the child’s reach without providing verbal instructions. The child’s actions on the object were scored based on how closely the action matched the model. The measures of fine motor and nonverbal cognitive ability were obtained from the Fine Motor (FM) and Visual Reception (VR) scales, respectively, of the Mullen Scales of Early Learning (Mullen, 1995). Social synchrony was measured by clinician ratings on the ADOS Social Reciprocity algorithm at the 24-month assessment.
Results: Results revealed that 94% of the toddlers demonstrated imitative behavior, spontaneously imitating on average 37% of the models that they observed (Range= 0-86%). To explore the social influences of spontaneous imitation, a zero-order correlation was conducted between the frequency of spontaneous imitation and the total score on ADOS Social Reciprocity algorithm. After controlling for VR, there was a significant negative relationship (r(14)=-.43, p>.05) between the variables, where higher Social Reciprocity scores (more deviance from the norm) was negatively related to spontaneous imitation. To examine whether FM and VR could account for qualitative differences in imitation ability, children were divided into two groups based on the proportion of models imitated (“High Imitators” ≥ 40%, “Low Imitators”<40%). A Mann-Whitney U test revealed no differences in FM or VR t-scores between High Imitators and Low Imitators.
Conclusions: There is great variability in the frequency of spontaneous imitation in toddlers with ASD, and this variability appears to be unrelated to fine motor ability and nonverbal cognitive ability during the early phases of development. In addition, the frequency of spontaneous imitation was related to clinician’s ratings of social reciprocity, which we interpret as self-other synchronization.
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