Why is learning difficult for children with autism?

| May 9, 2014

There is still a lot of research to be done around the impact of early learning programs on the development of young children with autism. Dr Giacomo Vivanti shares some first results.

Our ability to live as independent adults is influenced heavily by our learning experiences as children. Autism affects the ability to live an adult independent life, perhaps more than any other developmental condition, and these difficulties are rooted in early learning difficulties. But why is learning difficult for children with autism? To answer to this question, we have undertaken a comprehensive research program aimed at ‘dissecting’ early learning in autism.

As the first step, we analysed the existing studies (more than 150) which focused on if and how people with autism learn by imitating others. We found that while it is clear that individuals with autism can imitate, they imitate less frequently and less precisely compared to those without autism.

Next, we investigated the causes of these differences in a series of experiments involving preschoolers with and without autism. We found that the imitation impairment in autism does not have a single explanation – rather, the difficulties in imitating actions precisely were linked to an unusual way to observe the demonstration (increased attention to the model’s actions and decreased attention to the model’s face), while the tendency to imitate actions less frequently was linked to difficulties in reading/interpreting social cues, such as eye gaze direction.

We then tested the hypothesis that children with autism might be less inclined to imitate others because they prefer to act in the environment according to their own goals and motives rather than doing what others do. However, we found that those children who were less likely to imitate others’ actions were also less likely to engage in play actions organised around their own goals (i.e., when playing with toys by themselves). This suggests that imitation difficulties in autism do not reflect an ‘egocentric’ attitude (i.e., ignoring others’ goals to focus on own goals), but rather a more general difficulty in organising goal-directed actions in their environment.

In the same study we found that children with autism, unlike those without autism, would frequently attempt to use their own means to achieve an end-state of the actions demonstrated to them, rather than copying the mean used by the model – a behaviour called emulation. For example, after observing a model retrieve a pen from a container using a side opening (a novel action), they would attempt to retrieve the pen by instead removing the lid (an action that they are already familiar with). This was not the case in children without autism. Using emulation instead of imitation represents a critical learning disadvantage, as this behavior does not result in the acquisition of novel actions.

In another experiment, we investigated when children with and without autism imitate. Typical children are more likely to imitate a person who is looking at them, rather than someone who is ignoring them, because the establishment of eye-contact creates connectedness between the teacher and the learner. However, in this study we found this not to be the case for children with autism – their propensity to imitate a model was irrespective to whether she was looking at them or ignoring them, which was not the case in children without autism.

What are the brain bases underlying these differences? According to many scholars, imitation difficulties in ASD (autism spectrum disorder) are caused by a disruption of the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), a brain network that enables it to experience others’ actions, emotions and sensations using the same neural systems through which we experience these actions emotions and sensations ourselves. However, in an article written with Professor Sally Rogers, after analysing the patterns of results documented in our and other recent research, we suggest that a dysfunction in the MNS activity might be the outcome, rather than the cause, of imitative learning during childhood. If this is the case, then educational programs facilitating early learning might have the potential to mitigate or even prevent the development of the biological abnormalities in the MNS and other brain systems. While research in this area is still insufficient to reach a definitive conclusion, the impact of early learning programs on the development of young children with ASD is currently a major focus of research at OTARC.



Vivanti, G., & Rogers, S.J. (2014) Autism and the mirror neuron system: insights from learning and teaching. Philosophical Transactions of the Royale Society of London Series B 369: 20130184. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2013.0184

Vivanti, G., Trembath, D., & Dissanayake, C. (2014) Mechanisms of Imitation Impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10802-014-9874-9

Vivanti, G., & Dissanayake, C. (2014) Propensity to imitate in autism is not modulated by the model’s gaze direction: an eye-tracking study. Autism Research DOI: 10.1002/aur.1376

Vivanti, G., & Hamilton, A. (2014) Imitation in Autism Spectrum Disorders. In Volkmar, F., Paul, R., Rogers, S., Pelphrey, K. (Eds) The Handbook of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 4th Edition, Volume 1, pp. 278-301, New York, Wiley

Vivanti, G., Trembath, D., & Dissanayake, C. (2014). Atypical monitoring and responsiveness to goal directed gaze in autism spectrum disorder. Experimental Brain Research, 232 (2), 695-701

This blog first appeared in Another Piece, News of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre.