Instructions to attend to an observed action increases imitation in autistic adults

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The current study investigated whether reduced visual attention to an observed action might account for altered imitation in autistic adults. 22 autistic and 22 non-autistic adults observed and then imitated videos of a hand producing sequences of movements that differed in vertical elevation while their hand and eye movements were recorded. Participants first performed a block of imitation trials with general instructions to imitate the action. They then performed a second block with explicit instructions to attend closely to the characteristics of the movement. Imitation was quantified according to how much participants modulated their movement between the different heights of the observed movements. In the general instruction condition, the autistic group modulated their movements significantly less compared to the non-autistic group. However, following instructions to attend to the movement, the autistic group showed equivalent imitation modulation to the non-autistic group. Eye movement recording showed that the autistic group spent significantly less time looking at the hand movement for both instruction conditions. These findings show that visual attention contributes to altered voluntary imitation in autistic individuals and have implications for therapies involving imitation as well as for autistic people’s ability to understand the actions of others.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 17 Sep 2019