Imitation and action understanding in autistic spectrum disorders: how valid is the hypothesis of a deficit in the mirror neuron system?

Neuropsychologia. 2007 Apr 9;45(8):1859-68. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.11.022. Epub 2007 Jan 17.

Abstract

The motor mirror neuron system supports imitation and goal understanding in typical adults. Recently, it has been proposed that a deficit in this mirror neuron system might contribute to poor imitation performance in children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and might be a cause of poor social abilities in these children. We aimed to test this hypothesis by examining the performance of 25 children with ASD and 31 typical children of the same verbal mental age on four action representation tasks and a theory of mind battery. Both typical and autistic children had the same tendency to imitate an adult's goals, to imitate in a mirror fashion and to imitate grasps in a motor planning task. Children with ASD showed superior performance on a gesture recognition task. These imitation and gesture recognition tasks all rely on the mirror neuron system in typical adults, but performance was not impaired in children with ASD. In contrast, the ASD group were impaired on the theory of mind tasks. These results provide clear evidence against a general imitation impairment and a global mirror neuron system deficit in children with autism. We suggest this data can best be understood in terms of multiple brain systems for different types of imitation and action understanding, and that the ability to understand and imitate the goals of hand actions is intact in children with ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Female
  • Gestures
  • Hand Strength / physiology
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior / physiology*
  • Male
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology