International Meeting for Autism Research: Spontaneous Mimicry and Imitation in Children with Autism

Spontaneous Mimicry and Imitation in Children with Autism

Saturday, May 22, 2010: 1:30 PM
Grand Ballroom E Level 5 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
1:15 PM
E. Moody , University of Colorado Denver, Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, CO
D. McIntosh , Psychology, University of Denver, Denver, CO
S. Hepburn , Psychiatry, University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, Aurora, CO
Background: Within 1000ms of seeing an emotional facial expression, typical adults rapidly mimic the expression. Deficits in such rapid mimicry have been found in adults, adolescents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (McIntosh et al., 2006; Beall, et al., 2008). Such deficits are theorized to influence social functioning and development (Moody & McIntosh, 2007) and may represent deficits in the mirror system (Oberman, et al., 2009). Objectives: To explore what types of movements and expressions children with autism mimic; and to use that information to infer whether mimicry deficits are related to emotional processes, general mimicry processes, or attentional deficits. Methods: 40 children (31 children with autism, 9 typically developing siblings) were shows a series of 48 videos of actors displaying several face and body while electromyographic (EMG) readings were taken to assess the degree of mimicry. Actions were varied on emotional content and body part being moved (happy and angry facial expressions, puckering and stuttering mouth movements, waving and arm wrestling). Participants first saw the series of video clips and were asked to “just watch” to get a baseline level of spontaneous mimicry. Next participants were asked to “copy what you see on the screen” to assess their ability to imitate these actions. Participants wore EMG electrodes over the muscles corresponding to each action displayed in the stimuli (zygomaticus major for smiling, corrugator supercilli for scowling, orbicularis oris for stuttering and puckering, and the forearm flexor for arm wrestling and waving). Results: Preliminary results indicate that children from both groups spontaneously imitated the actions in the “just watch” condition (i.e., made overt actions congruent with observed actions). This was despite repeated reminders to “just watch”. This degree of spontaneous imitation has not been reported in previous EMG studies that have used static images for stimuli. However, the children with autism generally showed more disorganized and incongruent imitation (e.g., laughing at anger expressions). Further analyses will be conducted to evaluate the degree of rapid mimicry in these groups. Conclusions: These data suggest that although children with autism have a deficit in rapidly mimicking static faces, they still spontaneously imitate observed dynamic actions. Combined with work showing a delay (not absence) in matching during emotion decoding tasks (Oberman et al., 2009), this finding indicates that task demands and stimulus characteristics affect mimicry. Moreover, that the imitation was generally less natural and consistent with the stimuli further suggests that this ability may not function typically or that other processes may interfere with it. Continued examination of what factors facilitate imitation and mimicry and what the limits are on them when they are observed will identify which processes are preserved and which are disrupted in children with autism. This work will support work identifying social and emotional outcomes affected by these deficits, and focus attention on possible ways to enhance social-emotional functioning.