Background: Imitation skills play a crucial role in social cognitive development from early childhood. Many studies have shown a deficit in imitation skills in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Little is known about the development of imitation behaviors in children with ASD. This study aims to measure the trajectories of early imitation skills in preschoolers with ASD and how these skills impact other areas of early development.
Methods: For this purpose, we assessed imitation, language, and cognition skills in 177 children with ASD and 43 typically developing children (TD) aged 2 to 5 years old, 126 of which were followed longitudinally, yielding a total of 396 time points.
Results: Our results confirmed the presence of an early imitation deficit in toddlers with ASD compared to TD children. The study of the trajectories showed that these difficulties were marked at the age of 2 years and gradually decreased until the age of 5 years old. Imitation skills were strongly linked with cognitive and language skills and level of symptoms in our ASD group at baseline. Moreover, the imitation skills at baseline were predictive of the language gains a year later in our ASD group. Using a data-driven clustering method, we delineated different developmental trajectories of imitation skills within the ASD group.
Conclusions: The clinical implications of the findings are discussed, particularly the impact of an early imitation deficit on other areas of competence of the young child.
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorders; Developmental trajectories; Heterogeneity; Imitation.
© 2021. The Author(s).