Skip to main content Accessibility help

Imitating actions on objects in early-onset and regressive autism: Effects and implications of task characteristics on performance

  • Sally J. Rogers (a1), Gregory S. Young (a1), Ian Cook (a1), Angelo Giolzetti (a1) and Sally Ozonoff (a1)...


This study was designed to examine the nature of object imitation performance in early autism. We hypothesized that imitation would be relatively preserved when behaviors on objects resulted in salient instrumental effects. We designed tasks in which, in one condition, the motor action resulted in a salient, meaningful effect on an object, whereas in the other condition, the same action resulted in a less salient effect because of differing object characteristics. The motor aspects of the tasks did not vary across conditions. Four participant groups of 2- to 5-year-olds were examined: 17 children with early-onset autism, 24 children with regressive onset autism, 22 children with developmental delays, and 22 children with typical development. Groups were matched on nonverbal skills, and differences in verbal development were examined as a moderator of imitative ability. Results revealed an interaction of group by condition, with the combined autism group failing more tasks than the combined comparison groups, and failing more tasks in the less salient condition than in the more salient condition, as hypothesized. Analyses of autism subgroups revealed these effects were primarily because of the regression onset group. Accuracy of motor performance was examined by analyzing errors. Among children passing imitative acts, there were no group differences and no condition effects in the number, type, or pattern of performance errors. Among children passing the tasks, the group with autism did not demonstrate more emulation errors (imitating the goal but not the means) than other groups. There was no evidence that either motor or attentional aspects of the tasks contributed to the poorer imitative performance of the children with autism.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Sally J. Rogers, 2825 50th Street, Sacramento, CA 95817; E-mail:


Hide All
Amaral, D. G., Bauman, M. D., & Mills Schumann, C. (2003). The amygdala and autism: Implications from non-human primate studies. Genes, Brain and Behavior, 2, 295302.
Bachevalier, J. (1994). Medial temporal lobe structures and autism: A review of clinical and experimental findings. Neuropsychologica, 6, 627648.
Baldwin, J. M. (1906). Social and ethical interpretations in mental development. New York: Macmillan.
Ballinger, G. A. (2004). Using generalized estimating equations for longitudinal data analysis. Organizational Research Methods, 7, 127150.
Bennetto, L. (1999). A componential approach to imitation and movement deficits in autism. Dissertation Abstracts International, 60, 819.
Bernier, R., Dawson, G., Murias, M., & Webb, S. (2007). EEG mu rhythm and imitation impairments in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Brain and Cognition, 64, 228237.
Bruner, J. (1972). Nature and uses of immaturity. American Psychologist, 27, 687708.
Charman, T., Swettenham, J., Baron-Cohen, S., Cox, A., Baird, G., & Drew, A. (1997). Infants with autism: An investigation of empathy, pretend play, joint attention, and imitation. Developmental Psychology, 33, 781789.
Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893910.
Dapretto, M., Davies, M. S., Pfeifer, J. H., Scott, A. A., Sigman, M., Bookheimer, S. Y., et al. (2006). Understanding emotions in others: Mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 2830.
Dawson, G., Toth, K., Abbott, R., Osterling, J., Munson, J., Estes, A., & Liaw, J. (2004). Defining the early social attention impairments in autism: Social orienting, joint attention, and responses to emotions. Developmental Psychology, 40, 271283.
DeMyer, M. K., Alpern, G. D., Barton, S., DeMyer, W. E., Churchill, D. W., Hingtgen, J. N., et al. (1972). Imitation in autistic, early schizophrenic, and nonpsychotic subnormal children. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 2, 264287.
Gergely, G., Bekkering, H., & Kiraly, I. (2002). Rational imitation in preverbal infants. Nature, 415, 755.
Goldberg, W. A., Thorsen, K. L., Osann, K., & Spence, M. A. (2007). Use of home videotapes to confirm parental reports of regression in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 11361146.
Hobson, J. A., & Hobson, R. P. (2007). Identification: The missing link between joint attention and imitation? Development and Psychopathology, 19, 411431.
Hobson, R. P. (1995). Apprehending attitudes and actions: Separable abilities in early development? Development and Psychopathology, 7, 171182.
Hobson, R. P., & Lee, A. (1999). Imitation and identification in autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 649660.
Hollingshead, A. B. (1975). Four factor index of social status. New Haven, CT: Yale University.
Huang, C. T., Heyes, C., & Charman, T. (2002). Infants' behavioral reenactment of “Failed Attempts”: Exploring the roles of emulation learning, stimulus enhancement, and understanding of intentions. Developmental Psychology, 38, 840855.
Iacoboni, M. (2005). Neural mechanisms of imitation. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 15, 632637.
Iacoboni, M. (2006). Understanding others: Imitation, language, and empathy. In Hurley, S. & Chater, N. (Eds.), Perspectives on imitation: From mirror neurons to memes—Mechanisms of imitation and imitation in animals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ingersoll, B., Schreibman, L., & Tran, Q. H. (2003). Effect of sensory feedback on immediate object imitation in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 673683.
Kaye, K., & Marcus, J. (1981). Infant imitation: The sensory-motor agenda. Developmental Psychology, 17, 258265.
Liang, K. Y., & Zeger, S. L. (1986). Longitudinal data analysis using generalized linear models. Biometrika, 73, 1322.
Lord, C., Rutter, M., & Le Couteur, A. (1994). Autism diagnostic interview—Revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 659685.
Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P., & Risi, S. (1999). Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule—WPS Edition. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
Luyster, R., Richler, J., Risi, S., Hsu, W. L., Dawson, G., Bernier, R., et al. (2005). Early regression in social communication in autism spectrum disorders: A CPEA study. Developmental Neuropsychology, 27, 311336.
Maestro, S., Muratori, F., Cesari, A., Pecini, C., Apicella, F., & Stern, D. (2006). A view to regressive autism through home movies. Is early development really normal? Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 113, 6872.
Masur, E. F., & Ritz, E. G. (1984). Patterns of gestural, vocal, and verbal imitation performance in infancy. Merrill–Palmer Quarterly, 30, 369392.
McCabe, M. A., & Uzgiris, I. C. (1983). Effects of model and action on imitation in infancy. Merrill–Palmer Quarterly, 29, 6982.
Meltzoff, A., & Gopnik, A. (1993). The role of imitation in understanding persons and developing a theory of mind. In Baron-Cohen, S., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Cohen, D. J. (Eds.), Understanding other minds (pp. 335366). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). “Like me”: A foundation for social cognition. Developmental Science, 10, 126134.
Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, M. K. (1989). Imitation in newborn infants: Exploring the range of gestures imitated and the underlying mechanisms. Developmental Psychology, 25, 954962.
Meyer, J., & Hobson, R. P. (2004). Orientation in relation to self and other: The case of autism. Interaction Studies, 5, 221244.
Miles, J. H., Takahashi, T. N., Bagby, S., Sahota, P. K., Vaslow, D. F., Wang, C. H., et al. (2005). Essential versus complex autism: Definition of fundamental prognostic subtypes. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 135, 171180.
Mostofsky, S. H., Dubey, P., Jerath, V. K., Janciewicz, E. M., Goldberg, M. C., & Denckla, M. B. (2006). Developmental dyspraxia is not limited to imitation in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 12, 314326.
Mullen, E. (1989). Mullen Scales of Early Learning. Cranston, RI: T.O.T.A.L. Child, Inc.
Mundy, P., & Neal, R. A. (2001). Neural plasticity, joint attention, and a transactional social-orienting model of autism. In Glidden, L. M. (Ed.), International review of research in mental retardation (pp. 139168). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Niedenthal, P. M., Barsalou, L. W., Winkielman, P., Krauth-Gruber, S., & Ric, F. (2005). Embodiment in attitudes, social perception, and emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9, 184211.
Ohta, M. (1987). Cognitive disorders of infantile autism: A study employing the WISC, spatial relationships, conceptualization, and gestural imitation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17, 4562.
Osterling, J. A., Dawson, G., & Munson, J. A. (2002). Early recognition of 1-year-old infants with autism spectrum disorder versus mental retardation. Development and Psychopathology, 14, 239251.
Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.
Richardson, M. J., Marsh, K. L., & Schmidt, R. C. (2005). Effects of visual and verbal interaction on unintentional interpersonal coordination. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 31, 6279.
Richler, J., Luyster, R., Risi, S., Hsu, W. L., Dawson, G., Bernier, R., et al. (2006). Is there a regressive “phenotype” of autism spectrum disorder associated with the measles–mumps–rubella vaccine? A CPEA study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 299316.
Rogers, S. J. (1999). An examination of the imitation deficit in autism. In Nadel, J. & Butterworth, G. (Eds.), Imitation in infancy (pp. 254283). Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Rogers, S. J. (2004). Developmental regression in autism spectrum disorders. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 10, 139143.
Rogers, S. J., Bennetto, L., McEvoy, R., & Pennington, B. F. (1996). Imitation and pantomime in high functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Child Development, 67, 20602073.
Rogers, S. J., & DiLalla, D. (1990). Age of symptom onset in young children with pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 29, 863872.
Rogers, S. J., Hepburn, S. L., Stackhouse, T., & Wehner, E. (2003). Imitation performance in toddlers with autism and those with other developmental disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 44, 763781.
Rogers, S. J., & Pennington, B. F. (1991). A theoretical approach to the deficits in infantile autism. Development and Psychopathology, 3, 137162.
Rogers, S. J., & Williams, J. H. G. (2006). Imitation in autism: Findings and controversies. In Rogers, S. J. & Williams, J. H. G. (Eds.), Imitation and the social mind: Autism and typical development (pp. 277309). New York: Guilford Press.
Rumiati, R. I., Weiss, P. H., Tessari, A., Assmus, A., Zilles, K., Herzog, H., et al. (2005). Common and differential neural mechanisms supporting imitation of meaningful and meaningless actions. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17, 14201431.
Smith, I. M., & Bryson, S. E. (1998). Gesture imitation in autism I: Nonsymbolic postures and sequences. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 15, 747770.
Stone, W. L., Ousley, O. Y., & Littleford, C. D. (1997). Motor imitation in young children with autism: What's the object? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25, 475485.
Tomasello, M., Savage-Rumbaugh, S., & Kruger, A. C. (1993). Imitative learning of actions on objects by children, chimpanzees, and enculturated chimpanzees. Child Development, 64, 16881705.
Uzgiris, I. C. (1981). Two functions of imitation during infancy. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 4, 112.
Werner, E., Dawson, G., Munson, J., & Osterling, J. (2005). Variation in early developmental course in autism and its relation with behavioral outcome at 3–4 years of age. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35, 337350.
Werner, E., Dawson, G., Osterling, J., & Dinno, N. (2000). Brief report: Recognition of autism spectrum disorder before one year of age: A retrospective study based on home videotapes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 157162.
Williams, J. H. G., Waiter, G. D., Gilchrist, A., Perrett, D. I., Murray, A. D., & Whiten, A. (2006). Neural mechanisms of imitation and “mirror neuron” functioning in autistic spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia, 44, 610621.
Williams, J. H. G., Whiten, A., Suddendorf, T., & Perrett, D. I. (2001). Imitation, mirror neurons and autism. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 25, 287295.
Williamson, R. A., & Markman, E. M. (2006). Precision of imitation as a function of preschoolers' understanding of the goal of the demonstration. Developmental Psychology, 42, 723731.

Imitating actions on objects in early-onset and regressive autism: Effects and implications of task characteristics on performance

  • Sally J. Rogers (a1), Gregory S. Young (a1), Ian Cook (a1), Angelo Giolzetti (a1) and Sally Ozonoff (a1)...


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed