Validation of Adult Generalized Imitation Topographies and the Emergence of Generalized Imitation in Young Children with Autism as a Function of Mirror Training

By Du, Lin R.; Greer, Douglas | The Psychological Record, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Validation of Adult Generalized Imitation Topographies and the Emergence of Generalized Imitation in Young Children with Autism as a Function of Mirror Training


Du, Lin R., Greer, Douglas, The Psychological Record


In cognitive psychology, imitation is seen to play a role in the development of children's perspective-taking. "...The child must learn to use a symbol toward the adult in the same way the adult used it toward her. This is clearly a process of imitative learning in which the child aligns herself with the adult in terms of both the goal and the means for attaining the goal...." (Tomasello 1999, p.105). Thus, in some developmental theories, incidences of non-mirrored imitation in which a child reverses motor imitation in accordance with the perspective of the person observed rather than the child's own perspective is regarded as a milestone of cognitive development. In that view, imitation involves not only the emission of point-to-point topographical similarity but also reversal of visual perspective. That is, in cases where the experimenter faced the participant and raises her right hand, the participant who took the perspective of the experimenter would raise her right hand, and this would be a non-mirrored response where the participant took the perspective of the experimenter. On the other hand, if the experimenter demonstrated the same right hand response and the participant were to raise her left hand this would be a mirrored response and the participant would not be taking the perspective of the experimenter. A search of the literature revealed little research that directly tested whether adults do indeed emit non-mirrored gestural responses.

Research on topographical similarity has concentrated on attempting to train generalized imitation when it was missing in young children or testing for the presence or absence of GI in typically developing young children (i.e., Erjavec 2002; Home and Erjavec 2007; Erjavec and Home 2008; Erjavec et al. 2009; Poulson and Kymissis 1988; Poulson et al. 1991, 2002). Erjavec and colleagues identified limitations in the research on GI. They cited that early studies in behavior analysis used common imitative movements that children were likely to encounter, such as clapping their hands or blowing kisses. They also identified limitations in the training procedures of some prior studies (Erjavec et al. 2009, p. 357) that they controlled for in their program of research.

One of the critical determinants of GI according to the seminal work by Baer and Sherman (1964) was the emission of untrained imitative responses that were not reinforced by the experimenter. According to Baer and colleagues (Baer and Deguchi 1985; Baer et al. 1967) the nature of the consequence that served as the reinforcement for the imitative determined the presence of GI. In order for GI to be present, the reinforcement must be the correspondence between what is observed and the imitated response. Others have suggested that the emission of unreinforced correspondence is a reinforcement schedule effect resulting from multiple exemplars that reinforced seeing and doing (i.e., Gewirtz and Stingle 1968).

The three key issues in the research involve the following questions: (a) Is the emission of non-mirrored responding central to GI and to the teaching of GI? (b) Current evidence suggests that GI does not emerge from face-to-face training; however, can GI be taught using a mirror when stringent controls over possible prior experiences are in place? (c) What is the source of reinforcement for GI?

Erjavec and colleagues instituted a program of research to address two of these questions. Their studies appear to be the most carefully controlled in the literature to date, and improved on procedures and controls found to be limitations in prior research. They developed and used a collection of movements that provided the most stringent control for instructional history in the literature for what constituted generalized imitation (GI). In contrast to prior studies, they carefully selected the responses that did not exist in the participants' repertoires for their GI assessment. They also took into consideration some possible variables that might impact the participants' responses. …

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