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.