• reward;
  • imitation;
  • social;
  • nonsocial;
  • autism;
  • empathy;
  • mimicry

Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) are associated with diminished responsiveness to social stimuli, and especially to social rewards such as smiles. Atypical responsiveness to social rewards, which reinforce socially appropriate behavior in children, can potentially lead to a cascade of deficits in social behavior. Individuals with ASC often show diminished spontaneous mimicry of social stimuli in a natural setting. In the general population, mimicry is modulated both by the reward value and the sociality of the stimulus (i.e., whether the stimulus is perceived to belong to a conspecific or an inanimate object). Since empathy and autistic traits are distributed continuously in the general population, this study aimed to test if and how these traits modulated automatic mimicry of rewarded social and nonsocial stimuli. High and low rewards were associated with human and robot hands using a conditioned learning paradigm. Thirty-six participants from the general population then completed a mimicry task involving performing a prespecified hand movement which was either compatible or incompatible with a hand movement presented to the participant. High autistic traits (measured using the Autism Spectrum Quotient, AQ) predicted lesser mimicry of high-reward than low-reward conditioned human hands, whereas trait empathy showed an opposite pattern of correlations. No such relations were observed for high-reward vs. low-reward conditioned robot hands. These results demonstrate how autistic traits and empathy modulate the effects of reward on mimicry of social compared to nonsocial stimuli. This evidence suggests a potential role for the reward system in underlying the atypical social behavior in individuals with ASC, who constitute the extreme end of the spectrum of autistic traits. Autism Res 2013, 6: 614–620. © 2013 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.