Justin Williams. "Autism and the imitation of emotionally meaningful behaviour"

Wednesday, 14 September, 2016 - 10:00 to 11:30

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects people of all ages and all intellectual abilities. The main features of autism that discriminate it from all other conditions are the capacity for understanding others’ emotions (empathy) and the capacity for communicating emotional states to others. Understanding how these two capacities are linked and how they are important for human development is a critical challenge for mental health research. In this talk, I will first discuss the role of imitation and sensorimotor learning in autism diagnosis across the lifespan and intellectual range, but also how these behaviours form the developmental origins for language-based indicators of autism which occur later on. I will show how a measure of emotion-imitation ability and a questionnaire-based measure of feelings-related-actions (the Actions & Feelings Questionnaire) correlate with empathic traits and autism diagnosis. In the second part of the talk, I will discuss the neural systems that serve the emotional evaluation and learning of sensorimotor contingencies in relation to meaning, how these can underpin the imitation of emotionally expressive states, and hence how they can foster the development of empathy through a ‘simulation theory of mind’. We will conclude with some discussion of current research directions.