Action understanding and social learning in Autism: A developmental perspective

Giacomo Vivanti, Sally J Rogers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Social cognitive development in humans is grounded on a set of "hardwired" skills that enable children to (1) pay attention to relevant aspects of the environment in order to make sense of other people's behaviour (2) incorporate the actions they observe into their own behavioural repertoire (i.e., social learning). This phenomenon, which allows individuals to take advantage of other people's knowledge and avoid the costs of trial-and-error learning, are likely to reflect the interplay of uniquely human socialcognitive biases (e.g., drive to orient attention toward other people) and higher-level cognitive processes (e.g., strategic selection of what to imitate). Difficulties in understanding and imitating others' actions, as well as difficulties in learning, are frequently documented in children with autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized, by multiple deficits in the areas of social communication, and reciprocity and by behavioural rigidity. A set of recent experimental studies based on the eye-tracking technologies (Vivanti, McCormick, Young, Abucayan, Hatt, Nadig et al., 2011; Vivanti, Nadig, Ozonoff, & Rogers, 2008) provide us with new insight on the nature of imitative learning and its disruption in children with autism. In particular, mechanisms such as joint attention, gaze following and "reading" referential cues appear to be crucially involved in the ability to understand, predict and copy others' actions. We will discuss these find-ings and their relevance for clinical practice, future research and theoretical debate on the neurocognitive mechanisms subserving social learning in children with and without autism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-29
Number of pages23
JournalLife Span and Disability
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Autism
  • Eye-tracking
  • Imitation
  • Mirror neurons
  • Social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Life-span and Life-course Studies
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Health(social science)


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