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Autistic Children Imitate Others More Efficiently, Study

Update Date: Apr 08, 2013 11:54 AM EDT

A new small study suggests that autistic children do things efficiently rather than socially, whereas normal children do things socially rather than efficiently.

New findings published April 8 in the journal Current Biology reveals that when a child with autism copies the actions of an adult, he or she is significantly more likely to omit anything "silly" about what they've seen.  However, normally developing children are more likely to repeat each and every element of the behavior they've just witnessed even if they realize parts of it don't make sense.

Researchers say the latest study is the first to show how important and challenging the social nature of imitation is for children with autism.  The study also highlights just how important it is for most children to be like other people.

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

The latest study involved 31 children with autism spectrum conditions and 30 typically developing children who were matched for verbal mental age. The children were asked to watch a demonstrator show how to retrieve a toy from a box or build a simple object.  The demonstration included two necessary actions like unclipping and removing the box lid and one unnecessary action like tapping the top of the box twice.  The box was then repositioned behind a screen and handed to the child who was instructed to "get or make the toy as fast as you can." Researchers noted that the children were not specifically told to copy the behavior they'd just seen.

Researcher said almost all the children successfully got or made the toy.  However, normally developing children were significantly more likely to include the unnecessary step as they completed their tasks.  Researchers said that the imitation of unnecessary steps is a behavior known as "overimitation".

The study revealed that normally developing children copied 43 to 57 percent of the unnecessary actions, compared to 22 percent in the children with autism. Researcher noted that the children in the study correctly identified the tapping action as "silly," and not "sensible".

Researchers say the next step is to study what kind of actions children tend to copy and how that tendency to copy everything might contribute to human cultural transmission of knowledge.

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