Infants with autism: an investigation of empathy, pretend play, joint attention, and imitation

Dev Psychol. 1997 Sep;33(5):781-9. doi: 10.1037//0012-1649.33.5.781.


Systematic studies of infants with autism have not been previously carried out. Taking advantage of a new prospective screening instrument for autism in infancy (S. Baron-Cohen et al., 1996), the present study found that, compared with developmentally delayed and normally developing children, 20-month-old children with autism were specifically impaired on some aspects of empathy, joint attention, and imitation. Infants with autism failed to use social gaze in the empathy and joint attention tasks. Both the infants with autism and the infants with developmental delay demonstrated functional play, but very few participants in either group produced spontaneous pretend play. In the developmental delay group, but not the autism group, pretend play was shown following prompting. The implications of these findings for developmental accounts of autism and for the early diagnosis of the disorder are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention*
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Developmental Disabilities / psychology
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination
  • Imitative Behavior*
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior*
  • Male
  • Observation
  • Play and Playthings* / psychology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Single-Blind Method
  • Social Facilitation