Title: Emulation and mimicry for social interaction: A theoretical approach to imitation in autism
Author: Antonia F Hamilton
Source: The quarterly journal of experimental psychology 61,1, 2008.

Dr. Hamilton at Dartmouth College just published a theoretical article that may become groundbreaking in its ability to guide autism research. She presented a theory that to some extent refutes the recent golden child of autism research: the broken-mirror theory of autism. At its most basic form, the broken-mirror theory proposes that the social disabilities in autism are caused by a malfunctioning mirror neuron system (MNS). The MNS is a complex series of neurons in our brains that seem to respond during particular situations such as when performing visually guided actions (pointing), but most importantly, when understanding the goal or meaning of actions of others (such as understanding a hand gesture), or predicting the future action of another person (such as predicting someone will leave when that person starts to put on a coat). Dr. Hamilton presents some compelling evidence that suggests that children with ASD do not necessarily perform as the broken-mirror theory may predict. Specifically, children with autism seem to perform as well as typically developing kids in tasks requiring “goal directed imitation” (picking up a cup), which should not be the case based on the broken-mirror theory. Instead Dr. Hamilton presents a new theory called the EP-M model for Autism. EP-M refers to specific brain communication pathways in various areas of the mirror neuron system. This new model proposes that children with autism do not have problems imitating “goal directed actions” (picking up a cup). However these children have difficulty imitating non-goal oriented actions, which she calls automatic mimicry (like imitating a facial expression). This new proposal suggests that only a specific pathway within the mirror neuron system seems to be compromised in autism: the pathway that allows us to imitate “meaningless” actions. That is, actions that do not have an overt, clearly identifiable goal: such as most social cues and facial expressions.

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