La Sapienza - Università di Roma

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Lack of communication and social interaction are considered to be distinctive characteristics of autistic spectrum conditions; however, until now, no study experimentally demonstrated the existence of these features in autistic people engaged in activities of cooperation and joint actions. 

A research team from the Sapienza Social and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, in collaboration with the Fondazione Santa Lucia and the University of Milan Bicocca, have conducted an experiment on 16 couples composed by an autistic individual and one without autistic spectrum disorders (neurotypical) and both without cognitive disabilities.

The couples were asked to grab an object at the same time as possible. In particular, one participant was told where to grasp the object, while the other was asked to imitate the companion's movement or to make an opposite gesture. In addition, as a control task, the participants were required to synchronize with a non-human stimulation.

The results reveal that in a cooperative task, the greater the number of autistic traits, the lesser is the ability to modulate joint actions based on the role in the interaction. In the non-social task, however, autistic traits do not lead to differences in the preparation and planning of the movement, but people with a high number of autistic traits were more distracted by non-human stimulation.

"Our study,” explains Ilaria Minio Paluello, Researcher at the Psychology Department, “shows for the first time that a high number of autistic traits can predict a stereotyped interaction style in conditions in which, in order to be able to coordinate with one's companion, it would be more useful to know how to modify movements according to the role in the interaction."

This result, which highlights the reduced capacity of autistic individuals to adapt their behaviour to a motor-cooperative task, clarifies the many everyday difficulties they face in non-verbal social interaction. Autistic people find it difficult to understand the perspective of others, use few verbal and non-verbal signals to regulate social interaction, show little use and understanding of communicative gestures and body language, and have difficulties with social and cooperative games and in coordinating actions with other individuals.