Intact imitation of emotional facial actions in autism spectrum conditions.
Press C., Richardson D., Bird G.
It has been proposed that there is a core impairment in autism spectrum conditions (ASC) to the mirror neuron system (MNS): If observed actions cannot be mapped onto the motor commands required for performance, higher order sociocognitive functions that involve understanding another person's perspective, such as theory of mind, may be impaired. However, evidence of MNS impairment in ASC is mixed. The present study used an 'automatic imitation' paradigm to assess MNS functioning in adults with ASC and matched controls, when observing emotional facial actions. Participants performed a pre-specified angry or surprised facial action in response to observed angry or surprised facial actions, and the speed of their action was measured with motion tracking equipment. Both the ASC and control groups demonstrated automatic imitation of the facial actions, such that responding was faster when they acted with the same emotional expression that they had observed. There was no difference between the two groups in the magnitude of the effect. These findings suggest that previous apparent demonstrations of impairments to the MNS in ASC may be driven by a lack of visual attention to the stimuli or motor sequencing impairments, and therefore that there is, in fact, no MNS impairment in ASC. We discuss these findings with reference to the literature on MNS functioning and imitation in ASC, as well as theories of the role of the MNS in sociocognitive functioning in typical development.