Over-imitation in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: a consideration of theoretical underpinnings and correlates

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University of New Brunswick


Over-imitation is the imitation of actions that are causally unnecessary to achieve a target outcome. Researchers have found that children with ASD will reproduce modelled actions that are not causally necessary for achieving the goal of an apparatus-directed task (e.g., to retrieve an object from within an apparatus). A three phase experimental design (Study 1) was used to investigate whether social or non-social theories of over-imitation would explain such behaviour in a sample of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD: n = 26, 20 males, mean age 10.15 years) and a sample of typically developing children (TDC: n = 26, 19 males, mean age 9.35 years). All participants observed models manipulate apparatuses using unnecessary and necessary actions to retrieve an object. Questionnaires completed by parents, and a standardized assessment measure given to participants, were used to gather information about social functioning, communication, and cognitive ability. Preliminary results suggested that order of presentation might be a factor in determining children’s responses; therefore, a second condition, varying order of presentation of tasks, as well as a second study (Study 2), was introduced to further examine these unanticipated results. Contrary to hypotheses, neither study supported a non-social theory of over-imitation for children with ASD. No group differences were found. Instead, order of presentations of apparatuses was the only variable to have a significant relationship with over-imitation; there was no relationship between social functioning, communication, or nonverbal cognition and over-imitation. These findings appear to support a theory of over-imitation that attributes the behaviour to normative learning and, more specifically, suggest that children with ASD were sensitive to the context in which the tasks were presented. Implications for understanding over-imitation in children with ASD, project strengths and weaknesses, and directions for future research are discussed.