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Short Description: Imitation of other people's actions is an emergent skill in newborns (Meltzoff & Moore, 1989) that ela- borates considerably across the first two years of life (Hanna & Meltzoff, 1993; Kaye & Marcus, 1991; Kuczynski, Zahn-Waxler, & R

Content Inside: Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 44:5 (2003), pp 763≠781 Imitation performance in toddlers with autism and those with other developmental disorders Sally J. Rogers, Susan L. Hepburn, Tracy Stackhouse, and Elizabeth Wehner University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, USA Background: The present study sought to examine the specificity, developmental correlates, nature and pervasiveness of imitation deficits very early in the development of autism. Methods: Subjects were 24 children with autism (mean age 34 months), 18 children with fragile X syndrome, 20 children with other developmental disorders, and 15 typically-developing children. Tasks included manual, oralfacial, and object oriented imitations, developmental measures, joint attention ability, and motor abilities. Results: Children with autism were found to be significantly more impaired in overall imitation abilities, oral-facial imitation, and imitations of actions on objects than children in all of the other groups. Imitation skills of young children with fragile X syndrome were strongly influenced by the absence or presence of symptoms of autism. For children with autism, imitation skills were strongly correlated with autistic symptoms and joint attention, even when controlling for developmental level. For comparison groups, imitation was related to other developmental abilities including play, language, and visual spatial skills. Neither motor functioning nor social responsivity accounted for a significant amount of variance in imitation scores, when controlling for overall developmental level, which accounted for much of the variation in imitation ability. Conclusions: Simple imitation skills were differentially impaired in young children with autism, and lack of social cooperation did not account for their poor performance. In autism, imitation skills clustered with dyadic and triadic social interactions and overall developmental level, but were not related to play or language development. For comparison children, all these areas were inter-related. Hypotheses about a specific dyspraxic deficit underlying the imitation performance in autism were not supported. Keywords: Autistic disorder, developmental delay, motor skills, imitation, fragile X syndrome, dyspraxia. Imitation of other people's actions is an emergent skill in newborns (Meltzoff & Moore, 1989) that elaborates considerably across the first two years of life (Hanna & Meltzoff, 1993; Kaye & Marcus, 1991; Kuczynski, Zahn-Waxler, & Radke-Yarrow, 1987; Masur & Ritz, 1984; Piaget, 1962). While some have viewed infant imitation as akin to fixed action patterns rather than intentional, volitional behavior, current evidence supports early imitation as ‘effortful and voluntary’ (Butterworth, 1999). Infant imitation appears to serve several functions (Trevarthen, Kokkinaki, & Fiamenghi, 1999; Nadel, Guerini, Peze, & Rivet, 1999). The earliest function of imitation involving body movements, vocalizations, and facial expressions provides a sense of connectedness, mutuality, and a means of communication with social partners (Meltzoff & Gopnik, 1993; Nadel et al., 1999; Trevarthen et al., 1999). A second function, beginning midway through the first year of life, provides the child with information about ` people's actions and intentions vis-a-vis the physical and social world, allowing for social learning through imitation (Uzgiris, 1981, 1999; Kugiumutzakis, 1999). It also provides a foundation for early peer interactions (Nadel & Peze, 1993; Trevarthen et al., 1999). The role of imitation in emotion sharing is supported by the work on emotional contagion, which provides additional theory and evidence on the role of imitation in rapid sharing of emotional states across the lifespan (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). Motor imitation may serve as a gateway for experiencing a lifelong sense of connectedness with other people, a foundation for shared experiences of activities, emotions and thought (Stern, 1985). Recent discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in nonhuman and human primates has provided the most explicit biological mechanism yet for imitative behavior in humans (di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese, & Rizzolatti, 1992). These neurons are activated when a certain movement is performed by the animal, and also when the animal sees another primate carry out the same movement (Iacoboni et al., 1999). Thus, these neurons may provide a way of sharing meaning and perceiving ‘self≠other correspondences’. The location of these neurons in the equivalent of Broca's area has led Rizzolatti and Arbib (1998) to suggest that the shared meanings that form the basis of communicative movements, gestures, and speech all originate from the firing of these mirror neurons. Findings from a recent fMRI study suggest that at least two brain regions are involved in human imitation: Broca's area in left inferior frontal cortex, perhaps involved in establishing meaning, and an area in right parietal cortex, which is suggested to code the kinesthetic aspects of the movement (Iacoboni et al., 1999). Difficulty with imitation of other people's movements appears to be particularly affected in autism. Autism is defined by the presence of three main ” Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2003. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA


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