Does a dysfunction in the mirror neuron system (MNS) underlie the social symptoms defining autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Research suggests that the MNS matches observed actions to motor plans for similar actions, and that these motor plans include directions for predictive eye movements when observing goal-directed actions. Thus, one important question is whether children with ASD use predictive eye movements in action observation. Young children with ASD as well as typically developing children and adults were shown videos in which an actor performed object-directed actions (human agent condition). Children with ASD were also shown control videos showing objects moving by themselves (self-propelled condition). Gaze was measured using a corneal reflection technique. Children with ASD and typically developing individuals used strikingly similar goal-directed eye movements when observing others’ actions in the human agent condition. Gaze was reactive in the self-propelled condition, suggesting that prediction is linked to seeing a hand–object interaction. This study does not support the view that ASD is characterized by a global dysfunction in the MNS.
Keywords: autism spectrum disorders, mirror neuron system, forward models, action prediction, eye movements