When the social mirror breaks: deficits in automatic, but not voluntary, mimicry of emotional facial expressions in autism


Address for correspondence: Daniel N. McIntosh, Department of Psychology, University of Denver, 2155 S. Race Street, Denver, CO 80208, USA; e-mail: dmcintos@du.edu


Humans, infants and adults alike, automatically mimic a variety of behaviors. Such mimicry facilitates social functioning, including establishment of interpersonal rapport and understanding of other minds. This fundamental social process may thus be impaired in disorders such as autism characterized by socio-emotional and communicative deficits. We examined automatic and voluntary mimicry of emotional facial expression among adolescents and adults with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and a typical sample matched on age, gender and verbal intelligence. Participants viewed pictures of happy and angry expressions while the activity over their cheek and brow muscle region was monitored with electromyography (EMG). ASD participants did not automatically mimic facial expressions whereas the typically developing participants did. However, both groups showed evidence of successful voluntary mimicry. The data suggest that autism is associated with an impairment of a basic automatic social-emotion process. Results have implications for understanding typical and atypical social cognition.