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Dev Psychopathol. 2007 Spring;19(2):411-31.

Identification: the missing link between joint attention and imitation?

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  • 1Institute of Child Health and Tavistock Clinic, University College London, London, UK.


In this paper we outline our hypothesis that human intersubjective engagement entails identifying with other people. We tested a prediction derived from this hypothesis that concerned the relation between a component of joint attention and a specific form of imitation. The empirical investigation involved "blind" ratings of videotapes from a recent study in which we tested matched children with and without autism for their propensity to imitate the self-/other-orientated aspects of another person's actions. The results were in keeping with three a priori predictions, as follows: (a) children with autism contrasted with control participants in spending more time looking at the objects acted upon and less time looking at the tester; (b) participants with autism showed fewer "sharing" looks toward the tester, and although they also showed fewer "checking" and "orientating" looks, they were specifically less likely to show any sharing looks; and, critically, (c) within each group, individual differences in sharing looks (only) were associated with imitation of self-other orientation. We suggest that the propensity to adopt the bodily anchored psychological stance of another person is essential to certain forms of joint attention and imitation, and that a weak tendency to identify with others is pivotal for the developmental psychopathology of autism.

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