Learning of skilled movements via imitation in ASD

Danielle McAuliffe, Yi Zhao, Ajay S. Pillai, Katarina Ament, Jack Adamek, Brian S. Caffo, Stewart H. Mostofsky, Joshua B. Ewen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) consists of altered performance of a range of skills, including social/communicative and motor skills. It is unclear whether this altered performance results from atypical acquisition or learning of the skills or from atypical “online” performance of the skills. Atypicalities of skilled actions that require both motor and cognitive resources, such as abnormal gesturing, are highly prevalent in ASD and are easier to study in a laboratory context than are social/communicative skills. Imitation has long been known to be impaired in ASD; because learning via imitation is a prime method by which humans acquire skills, we tested the hypothesis that children with ASD show alterations in learning novel gestures via imitation. Eighteen participants with ASD and IQ > 80, ages 8–12.9 years, and 19 typically developing peers performed a task in which they watched a video of a model performing a novel, meaningless arm/hand gesture and copied the gesture. Each gesture video/copy sequence was repeated 4–6 times. Eight gestures were analyzed. Examination of learning trajectories revealed that while children with ASD made nearly as much progress in learning from repetition 1 to repetition 4, the shape of the learning curves differed. Causal modeling demonstrated the shape of the learning curve influenced both the performance of overlearned gestures and autism severity, suggesting that it is in the index of learning mechanisms relevant both to motor skills and to autism core features. Autism Res 2020, 13: 777–784.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)777-784
Number of pages8
JournalAutism Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • autism
  • dyspraxia
  • imitation
  • learning
  • motor control
  • skill learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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