Observational Learning in Low-Functioning Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Behavioral and Neuroimaging Study

Francesca Foti, Fabrizio Piras, Stefano Vicari, Laura Mandolesi, Laura Petrosini, Deny Menghini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


New skills may be learned from the outcomes of their own internally generated actions (experiential learning) or from the observation of the consequences of externally generated actions (observational learning). Observational learning requires the coordination of cognitive functions and the processing of social information. Due to the "social" abilities underlying observational learning, the study of this process in individuals with limited social abilities such as those affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is worthy of being investigated. We asked a group of 16 low-functioning young children with ASD and group of 16 sex- and mental age-matched typically developing (TD) children to build a house with a set of bricks after a video-demonstration showing an actor who built the house (observational task - OBS task) and then to build by trial and error another house (experiential task - EXP task). For ASD group, performances in learning tasks were correlated with measures of cortical thickness of specific Regions of Interest (ROI) and volume of deep gray matter structures known to be related with such kinds of learning. According to our a priori hypothesis, for OBS task we selected the following ROI: frontal lobe (pars opercularis, pars triangularis, and premotor area), parietal lobe (inferior parietal gyrus), temporal lobe (superior temporal gyrus), cerebellar hemispheres. For EXP task, we selected the following ROI: precentral frontal gyrus and superior frontal gyrus, cerebellar hemispheres, basal ganglia, thalamus. Although performances of ASD and TD children improved in both OBS and EXP tasks, children with ASD obtained lower scores of goal achievement than TD children in both learning tasks. Only in ASD group, goal achievement scores positively correlated with hyperimitations indicating that children with ASD tended to have a "copy-all" approach that facilitated the goal achievement. Moreover, the marked hyperimitative tendencies of children with ASD were positively associated with the thickness of left pars opercularis, left premotor area, and right superior temporal gyrus, areas belonging to mirror neuron system, and with the volume of both cerebellar hemispheres. These findings suggest that in children with ASD the hyperimitation can represent a learning strategy that might be related to the mirror neuron system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2737
Number of pages1
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - Jan 9 2018


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