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Soc Neurosci. 2008;3(3-4):348-55. doi: 10.1080/17470910701563681.

Preliminary evidence for deficits in multisensory integration in autism spectrum disorders: the mirror neuron hypothesis.

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  • 1University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA.


Autism is a complex disorder, characterized by social, cognitive, communicative, and motor symptoms. One suggestion, proposed in the current study, to explain the spectrum of symptoms is an underlying impairment in multisensory integration (MSI) systems such as a mirror neuron-like system. The mirror neuron system, thought to play a critical role in skills such as imitation, empathy, and language can be thought of as a multisensory system, converting sensory stimuli into motor representations. Consistent with this, we report preliminary evidence for deficits in a task thought to tap into MSI--"the bouba-kiki task" in children with ASD. The bouba-kiki effect is produced when subjects are asked to pair nonsense shapes with nonsense "words". We found that neurotypical children chose the nonsense "word" whose phonemic structure corresponded with the visual shape of the stimuli 88% of the time. This is presumably because of mirror neuron-like multisensory systems that integrate the visual shape with the corresponding motor gestures used to pronounce the nonsense word. Surprisingly, individuals with ASD only chose the corresponding name 56% of the time. The poor performance by the ASD group on this task suggests a deficit in MSI, perhaps related to impaired MSI brain systems. Though this is a behavioral study, it provides a testable hypothesis for the communication impairments in children with ASD that implicates a specific neural system and fits well with the current findings suggesting an impairment in the mirror systems in individuals with ASD.

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