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Identification: The missing link between joint attention and imitation?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 April 2007

University College London
University College London


In this paper we outline our hypothesis that human intersubjective engagement entails identifying with other people. We tested a prediction derived from this hypothesis that concerned the relation between a component of joint attention and a specific form of imitation. The empirical investigation involved “blind” ratings of videotapes from a recent study in which we tested matched children with and without autism for their propensity to imitate the self-/other-orientated aspects of another person's actions. The results were in keeping with three a priori predictions, as follows: (a) children with autism contrasted with control participants in spending more time looking at the objects acted upon and less time looking at the tester; (b) participants with autism showed fewer “sharing” looks toward the tester, and although they also showed fewer “checking” and “orientating” looks, they were specifically less likely to show any sharing looks; and, critically, (c) within each group, individual differences in sharing looks (only) were associated with imitation of self–other orientation. We suggest that the propensity to adopt the bodily anchored psychological stance of another person is essential to certain forms of joint attention and imitation, and that a weak tendency to identify with others is pivotal for the developmental psychopathology of autism.This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (award reference R000239355), the Baily Thomas Charitable Foundation, and the Tavistock Clinic, London (with NHS R&D funding). The manuscript was completed while the authors were at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford. We are grateful to the staff, students, and parents at Edith Borthwick School, Helen Allison School, Springhallow School, and Swiss Cottage School for their generous involvement in this project; Dave Williams, Valentina Levi, and Susana Caló for their assistance with ratings of joint attention; and Tony Lee and Rosa García Pérez for their many contributions to the research.

Research Article
© 2007 Cambridge University Press

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