KIDS
April 18, 2013

Kids with Autism Focus on Essentials

Kids with ASD copy the actions of others differently. This tells us a bit more about how they see things.

All children learn by observing and mimicking those around them. But children with autism don’t imitate for the sake of social bonding to the degree that typically-developing children do. Instead, they focus on only the most necessary behaviors, offering a small clue into the developing autistic mind, according to a new British study.

The researchers asked 31 kids on the autism spectrum and 30 kids who were not to watch an adult as he or she executed a simple action involving a number of steps, such as putting together a small object or getting a toy out of a fastened box. For each task, the adults added a couple of unnecessary movements, such as tapping the box lid several times. Children were then asked to repeat the task.

Children with autism do things efficiently rather than socially, whereas typical children do things socially rather than efficiently.

Typically-developing children copied about half of the unnecessary actions (43-57%), while children with autism did so only about 22% of the time. Interestingly, the kids were able to point out that the unnecessary actions were indeed unnecessary or “silly,” even though they repeated them part of the time.

What this says about the autistic brain is not entirely clear, but the study does suggest that autistic kids respond to, and perhaps value, the social aspects of imitation and its effectiveness differently from other children developing more typically. The children with autism did not, as the authors say, “overimitate.”

"The data suggest that children with autism do things efficiently rather than socially,” said author Antonia Hamilton in a statement, “whereas typical children do things socially rather than efficiently. We find that typical children copy everything an adult does, whereas autistic children only do the actions they really need to do."

The researchers next plan to look at what kinds of behaviors children are more likely to copy. For example, some actions might inspire more or less copying depending on whether they are familiar or unfamiliar. Teachers and parents should keep in mind that learning is about more than just absorbing technical material – it’s about social connection as well. This is very likely true for autistic and typically-developing children alike, Hamilton noted.

The study was carried out by a team at the University of Nottingham and published in Current Biology.

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