The Eyes Tell a Story in Autism
MIND Institute researchers have discovered an important clue to why children with autism spectrum disorders have trouble imitating others: They spend less time looking at the faces of people who are modeling new skills.
The researchers conducted their study using eye-tracking headgear and software to measure with precision the point at which a child is looking when learning a task. An actor demonstrated the task, and test subjects watched on a computer.
"We found that the children with autism focused on the demonstrator's action and looked at the demonstrator's face much less often than did typically developing children," said Giacomo Vivanti, a postdoctoral researcher and the study's lead author.
"The typically developing children may be looking at the demonstrator's face to check for information on what to do or how to respond appropriately, information that the children with autism are less inclined to seek.
"This is an important finding, because children with autism have difficulty learning from others. This might be one key to why that is so."
Imitation plays an important role in how children learn, as well as in how people interact socially, said MIND Institute researcher and senior study author Sally J. Rogers, who has been studying imitation impairment and autism for more than 20 years. "This is a trait we see as early as we can diagnose autism, and it's one of the traits that is present even in mildly impaired adults," she said.
Impaired imitation leads to additional impairments in sharing emotions, pretend play, pragmatic communication and understanding the emotional states of others. For years, scientists thought that children with autism and related disorders had trouble with learning through imitation because they had poor motor skills or because they did not pay attention to the action being performed. The new study rules out these hypotheses.
"We now understand more about how this imitation deficit might be working and, after more study, we may actually be able to address it in a way that helps children with autism develop a more natural set of behaviors," said Rogers, a UC Davis professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
The study appeared online in June and is scheduled to appear in print in November in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
Phyllis Brown is a senior public information officer for the UC Davis Health System.
Dateline UCDavis. October 17, 2008.