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Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2014 Jul;23(7):599-610. doi: 10.1007/s00787-013-0475-x. Epub 2013 Oct 2.

Deficits in motor abilities and developmental fractionation of imitation performance in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders.

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  • 1Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Freiburg, Hauptstr. 8, 79104, Freiburg, Germany,


The co-occurrence of motor and imitation disabilities often characterises the spectrum of deficits seen in patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Whether these seemingly separate deficits are inter-related and whether, in particular, motor deficits contribute to the expression of imitation deficits is the topic of the present study and was investigated by comparing these deficits' cross-sectional developmental trajectories. To that end, different components of motor performance assessed in the Zurich Neuromotor Assessment and imitation abilities for facial movements and non-meaningful gestures were tested in 70 subjects (aged 6-29 years), including 36 patients with high-functioning ASD and 34 age-matched typically developed (TD) participants. The results show robust deficits in probands with ASD in timed motor performance and in the quality of movement, which are all independent of age, with one exception. Only diadochokinesis improves moderately with increasing age in ASD probands. Imitation of facial movements and of non-meaningful hand, finger, hand finger gestures not related to social context or tool use is also impaired in ASD subjects, but in contrast to motor performance this deficit overall improves with age. A general imitation factor, extracted from the highly inter-correlated imitation tests, is differentially correlated with components of neuromotor performance in ASD and TD participants. By developmentally fractionating developmentally stable motor deficits from developmentally dynamic imitation deficits, we infer that imitation deficits are primarily cognitive in nature.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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