Hyperimitation of Actions Is Related to Reduced Understanding of Others' Minds in Autism Spectrum Conditions


      Anecdotal evidence has noted that individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) frequently exhibit heightened spontaneous imitative behavior, with symptoms of echolalia and echopraxia. This is contrasted by empiric reports that ASC results in decreased imitation and an underlying deficit in the mirror system, leading to impaired social understanding. Thus, it remains unclear whether automatic imitation is enhanced in ASC and how this is related to poorer social abilities.


      This study investigated spontaneous imitation in 18 high-functioning adults with ASC and 18 age- and IQ-matched control participants during a simple imitation inhibition task. Mentalizing was experimentally assessed in the same participants using both behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging measures, as was social interaction using an observational measure.


      Individuals with ASC showed increased imitation of hand actions compared with control participants and this was associated with reduced mentalizing and poorer reciprocal social interaction abilities. In the functional magnetic resonance imaging mentalizing paradigm, ASC participants with increased imitation scores showed less brain activation in areas often found to be active in mental state attribution, namely the medial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction.


      The results confirm the presence of hyperimitation in ASC, which is accompanied by reduced social cognition, suggesting that a general imitation impairment and a global mirror system deficit are absent. These findings offer an explanation for echopractic features based on theories of atypical functioning of top-down modulation processes in autism.

      Key Words

      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Biological Psychiatry
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


        • Yang M.S.
        • Gill M.
        A review of gene linkage, association and expression studies in autism and an assessment of convergent evidence.
        Int J Dev Neurosci. 2007; 25: 69-85
        • American Psychiatric Association
        Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
        American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC1994
        • Williams J.H.
        • Whiten A.
        • Singh T.
        A systematic review of action imitation in autistic spectrum disorder.
        J Autism Dev Disord. 2004; 34: 285-299
        • Russell J.
        Autism as an Executive Disorder.
        Oxford University Press, New York1997
        • Rutter M.
        The development of infantile autism.
        Psychol Med. 1974; 4: 147-163
        • Buccino G.
        • Binkofski F.
        • Fink G.R.
        • Fadiga L.
        • Fogassi L.
        • Gallese V.
        • et al.
        Action observation activates premotor and parietal areas in a somatotopic manner: An fMRI study.
        Eur J Neurosci. 2001; 13: 400-404
        • Iacoboni M.
        • Woods R.P.
        • Brass M.
        • Bekkering H.
        • Mazziotta J.C.
        • Rizzolatti G.
        Cortical mechanisms of human imitation.
        Science. 1999; 286: 2526-2528
        • Rizzolatti G.
        • Craighero L.
        The mirror-neuron system.
        Annu Rev Neurosci. 2004; 27: 169-192
        • Williams J.H.
        • Whiten A.
        • Suddendorf T.
        • Perrett D.I.
        Imitation, mirror neurons and autism.
        Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2001; 25: 287-295
        • Baron-Cohen S.
        • Leslie A.M.
        • Frith U.
        Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?”.
        Cognition. 1985; 21: 37-46
        • Dapretto M.
        • Davies M.S.
        • Pfeifer J.H.
        • Scott A.A.
        • Sigman M.
        • Bookheimer S.Y.
        • Iacoboni M.
        Understanding emotions in others: Mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders.
        Nat Neurosci. 2006; 9: 28-30
        • Williams J.H.
        • Waiter G.D.
        • Gilchrist A.
        • Perrett D.I.
        • Murray A.D.
        • Whiten A.
        Neural mechanisms of imitation and “mirror neuron” functioning in autistic spectrum disorder.
        Neuropsychologia. 2006; 44: 610-621
        • Théoret H.
        • Halligan E.
        • Kobayashi M.
        • Fregni F.
        • Tager-Flusberg H.
        • Pascual-Leone A.
        Impaired motor facilitation during action observation in individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
        Curr Biol. 2005; 15: R84-R85
        • Oberman L.M.
        • Hubbard E.M.
        • McCleery J.P.
        • Altschuler E.L.
        • Ramachandran V.S.
        • Pineda J.A.
        EEG evidence for mirror neuron dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders.
        Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2005; 24: 190-198
        • Avikainen S.
        • Kulomaki T.
        • Hari R.
        Normal movement reading in Asperger subjects.
        Neuroreport. 1999; 10: 3467-3470
        • Oberman L.M.
        • Ramachandran V.S.
        • Pineda J.A.
        Modulation of mu suppression in children with autism spectrum disorders in response to familiar or unfamiliar stimuli: The mirror neuron hypothesis.
        Neuropsychologia. 2008; 46: 1558-1565
        • Raymaekers R.
        • Wiersema J.R.
        • Roeyers H.
        EEG study of the mirror neuron system in children with high functioning autism.
        Brain Res. 2009; 1304: 113-121
        • Fan Y.T.
        • Decety J.
        • Yang C.Y.
        • Liu J.L.
        • Cheng Y.
        Unbroken mirror neurons in autism spectrum conditions.
        J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2010; 51: 981-988
        • Dinstein I.
        • Thomas C.
        • Humphreys K.
        • Minshew N.
        • Behrmann M.
        • Heeger D.J.
        Normal movement selectivity in autism.
        Neuron. 2010; 66: 461-469
        • Martineau J.
        • Andersson F.
        • Barthelemy C.
        • Cottier J.P.
        • Destrieux C.
        Atypical activation of the mirror neuron system during perception of hand motion in autism.
        Brain Res. 2010; 1320: 168-175
        • Bird G.
        • Leighton J.
        • Press C.
        • Heyes C.
        Intact automatic imitation of human and robot actions in autism spectrum disorders.
        Proc Biol Sci. 2007; 274: 3027-3031
        • Gowen E.
        • Stanley J.
        • Miall R.C.
        Movement interference in autism-spectrum disorder.
        Neuropsychologia. 2008; 46: 1060-1068
        • Sebanz N.
        • Knoblich G.
        • Stumpf L.
        • Prinz W.
        Far from action blind: Representation of others' actions in individuals with autism.
        Cogn Neuropsychol. 2005; 22: 433-454
        • Hamilton A.F.
        • Brindley R.M.
        • Frith U.
        Imitation and action understanding in autistic spectrum disorders: How valid is the hypothesis of a deficit in the mirror neuron system?.
        Neuropsychologia. 2007; 45: 1859-1868
        • Leighton J.
        • Bird G.
        • Charman T.
        • Heyes C.
        Weak imitative performance is not due to a functional “mirroring” deficit in adults with autism spectrum disorders.
        Neuropsychologia. 2008; 46: 1041-1049
        • Southgate V.
        • Hamilton A.F.
        Unbroken mirrors: Challenging a theory of autism.
        Trends Cogn Sci. 2008; 12: 225-229
        • Hamilton A.F.
        Emulation and mimicry for social interaction: A theoretical approach to imitation in autism.
        Q J Exp Psychol. 2008; 2006: 101-115
        • Brass M.
        • Spengler S.
        The inhibition of imitative behavior and attribution of mental states.
        in: Striano T. Reid V. Social Cognition: Development, Neuroscience and Autism. Blackwell, Oxford, UK2008
        • Brass M.
        • Bekkering H.
        • Wohlschlager A.
        • Prinz W.
        Compatibility between observed and executed finger movements: Comparing symbolic, spatial, and imitative cues.
        Brain Cogn. 2000; 44: 124-143
        • Spengler S.
        • von Cramon D.Y.
        • Brass M.
        Control of shared representations relies on key processes involved in mental state attribution.
        Hum Brain Mapp. 2009; 30: 3704-3718
        • Frith U.
        Autism: Explaining the Enigma.
        Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK2003
        • Castelli F.
        • Frith C.
        • Happe F.
        • Frith U.
        Autism, Asperger syndrome and brain mechanisms for the attribution of mental states to animated shapes.
        Brain. 2002; 125: 1839-1849
        • Spengler S.
        • von Cramon D.Y.
        • Brass M.
        Resisting motor mimicry: Control of imitation involves processes central to social cognition in patients with frontal and temporo-parietal lesions.
        Soc Neurosci. 2010; 5: 401-416
        • Happe F.
        • Ehlers S.
        • Fletcher P.
        • Frith U.
        • Johansson M.
        • Gillberg C.
        • et al.
        Theory of mind in the brain.
        Neuroreport. 1996; 8: 197-201
        • Lord C.
        • Risi S.
        • Lambrecht L.
        • Cook Jr, E.H.
        • Leventhal B.L.
        • DiLavore P.C.
        • et al.
        The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic: A standard measure of social and communication deficits associated with the spectrum of autism.
        J Autism Dev Disord. 2000; 30: 205-223
        • Happe F.
        • Brownell H.
        • Winner E.
        Acquired “theory of mind” impairments following stroke.
        Cognition. 1999; 70: 211-240
        • Moriguchi Y.
        • Ohnishi T.
        • Lane R.D.
        • Maeda M.
        • Mori T.
        • Nemoto K.
        • et al.
        Impaired self-awareness and theory of mind: An fMRI study of mentalizing in alexithymia.
        Neuroimage. 2006; 32: 1472-1482
        • Turkeltaub P.E.
        • Eden G.F.
        • Jones K.M.
        • Zeffiro T.A.
        Meta-analysis of the functional neuroanatomy of single-word reading: Method and validation.
        Neuroimage. 2002; 16: 765-780
        • Frith U.
        • de Vignemont F.
        Egocentrism, allocentrism, and Asperger syndrome.
        Conscious Cogn. 2005; 14: 719-738
        • Frith U.
        • Frith C.D.
        Development and neurophysiology of mentalizing.
        Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2003; 358: 459-473
        • McIntosh D.N.
        • Reichmann-Decker A.
        • Winkielman P.
        • Wilbarger J.L.
        When the social mirror breaks: Deficits in automatic, but not voluntary, mimicry of emotional facial expressions in autism.
        Dev Sci. 2006; 9: 295-302
        • Klin A.
        • Jones W.
        • Schultz R.
        • Volkmar F.
        • Cohen D.
        Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism.
        Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002; 59: 809-816
        • Spezio M.L.
        • Adolphs R.
        • Hurley R.S.
        • Piven J.
        Abnormal use of facial information in high-functioning autism.
        J Autism Dev Disord. 2007; 37: 929-939
        • Molenberghs P.
        • Cunnington R.
        • Mattingley J.B.
        Is the mirror neuron system involved in imitation?.
        Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2009; 33: 975-980
        • Brass M.
        • Derrfuss J.
        • Matthes-von Cramon G.
        • von Cramon D.Y.
        Imitative response tendencies in patients with frontal brain lesions.
        Neuropsychology. 2003; 17: 265-271
        • Brass M.
        • Derrfuss J.
        • von Cramon D.Y.
        The inhibition of imitative and overlearned responses: A functional double dissociation.
        Neuropsychologia. 2005; 43: 89-98
        • Bird G.
        • Catmur C.
        • Silani G.
        • Frith C.
        • Frith U.
        Attention does not modulate neural responses to social stimuli in autism spectrum disorders.
        Neuroimage. 2006; 31: 1614-1624
        • Kana R.K.
        • Keller T.A.
        • Cherkassky V.L.
        • Minshew N.J.
        • Just M.A.
        Atypical frontal-posterior synchronization of theory of mind regions in autism during mental state attribution.
        Soc Neurosci. 2009; 4: 135-152
        • Frith C.D.
        • Frith U.
        The neural basis of mentalizing.
        Neuron. 2006; 50: 531-534
        • Decety J.
        • Lamm C.
        The role of the right temporoparietal junction in social interaction: How low-level computational processes contribute to meta-cognition.
        Neuroscientist. 2007; 13: 580-593
        • Lamm C.
        • Batson C.D.
        • Decety J.
        The neural substrate of human empathy: Effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal.
        J Cogn Neurosci. 2007; 19: 42-58
        • Cheng Y.
        • Lin C.P.
        • Liu H.L.
        • Hsu Y.Y.
        • Lim K.E.
        • Hung D.
        • Decety J.
        Expertise modulates the perception of pain in others.
        Curt Biol. 2007; 17: 1708-1713
        • Lee T.W.
        • Dolan R.J.
        • Critchley H.D.
        Controlling emotional expression: Behavioral and neural correlates of nonimitative emotional responses.
        Cereb Cortex. 2008; 18: 104-113
        • Olsson A.
        • Ochsner K.N.
        The role of social cognition in emotion.
        Trends Cogn Sci. 2008; 12: 65-71
        • Brass M.
        • Ruby P.
        • Spengler S.
        Inhibition of imitative behaviour and social cognition.
        Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009; 364: 2359-2367