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Imitation and action understanding in autistic adults

Project Description

Autism is characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction as well as repetitive and restricted behaviour. Voluntary imitation, the ability to purposefully copy another person’s actions is also altered with consistent evidence that while autistic individuals are more able to imitate the end goal of an action, they are less proficient at imitating the style or kinematics (e.g. amplitude, speed) of the action.1-2 As voluntary imitation is essential for learning new actions and behaviours from others and strengthening affiliative bonds, altered imitation in autism is likely to have a significant impact on their social functioning. In particular, by paying less attention to body kinematics they miss out on cues that help us to understand other peoples’ actions (e.g. where they are reaching, their mood or emotions).

Objective: This PhD will examine (1) the potential causes of altered imitation (2) the impact on action understanding in autistic adults.

Methods: Autistic and non-autistic participants will imitate different actions while their eye and hand movements are recorded using eye and motion trackers. Different factors that influence imitation will be examined such as attention to the observed movement,3 complexity of the movement, real-life vs. video presentation and the biological nature of the stimulus (e.g. imitating a hand versus a shape). Participants will also be asked to make judgements about the actions such as indicating whether an observed action has been sped up or what the action was trying to communicate.

Impact: Results will help develop strategies for autistic adults that facilitate interacting with others.

The student will join a vibrant research team in the Body, Eye and Movement (BEAM) lab.4 There are regular opportunities to become involved in activities such as teaching and public engagement and the student will benefit from the interdisciplinary research network [email protected],5 chaired by Emma Gowen.

Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a related area / subject (e.g. Psychology, Neuroscience). Candidates with experience in working with autistic people or using eye/motion tracking are encouraged to apply.

For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website ( Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor.

For international students we also offer a unique 4 year PhD programme that gives you the opportunity to undertake an accredited Teaching Certificate whilst carrying out an independent research project across a range of biological, medical and health sciences. For more information please visit

Funding Notes

This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).

Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor ().


1. Wild KS, Poliakoff E, Jerrison A, Gowen E (2012). Goal-directed and goal-less imitation in autism spectrum disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2012 42(8):1739-49
2. Hayes.S, Matthew. A, Gowen.E, Elliot.D, Bennett.S (2016) Low fidelity imitation of atypical biological kinematics in autism spectrum disorders is modulated by self-generated selective attention. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 46(2), 502-513
3. Bek J, Poliakoff E, Marshall H, Trueman S, Gowen E. (2016) Enhancing voluntary imitation through attention and motor imagery. Exp Brain Res. 2016 Jul;234(7):1819-28

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