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Understanding imitation in autism

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  • Full or part time
    Dr E Gowen
    Dr E Poliakoff
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Voluntary imitation involves deliberately copying the actions of another person and is essential for learning new behaviour. It also plays an important role in social interaction and children frequently use imitation games when playing together. Due to the significance of imitation in social interaction, imitative ability has been investigated in people with autism who have difficulties interacting with other people. Evidence indicates that imitation is altered in autistic people but not uniformly across all tasks. For example, we have shown that autistic people are better at imitating the goals of an action (e.g. picking up a cup) than imitating a goal-less action (e.g. unfamiliar patterns of hand movement).

The PhD will continue this previous work and examine why autistic people are less able to perform goal-less actions. This will include examining the role of eye movements, attention to the observed movement and the ability to integrate visual information with a motor movement. The work carried out during this PhD will help clarify why imitation and social interaction is altered in autism and will inform motor interventions that our lab is developing (see video: http://beamlab.lab.ls.manchester.ac.uk/research/autism/).

The successful student will join a vibrant research team in the Body, Eye and Movement (BEAM) lab (http://beamlab.lab.ls.manchester.ac.uk/), furnished with state of the art eye and motor tracking. Students will learn the principles, methodology and analysis of psychophysics and behavioural testing (eye and motion tracking) and benefit from a multidisciplinary supervisory team. They will have the opportunity to attend weekly talks held within Psychological Sciences and contribute in our bimonthly lab journal club. There are also regular opportunities to become involved in other activities such as teaching and public engagement events (see the news section of our website for examples). The student will also benefit from the interdisciplinary research network [email protected] (http://www.autism.manchester.ac.uk/), chaired by Emma Gowen.

Funding Notes

This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website. 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.


Gowen, E., & Hamilton, A. (2013). Motor abilities in autism: A review using a computational context. J Autism Dev Disord, 43(2), 323-344
Hamilton (2008) Emulation and mimicry for social interaction: a theoretical approach to imitation in autism. Q J Exp Psychol;61(1):101-15

Hayes SJ et al. (in press) Low Fidelity Imitation of Atypical Biological Kinematics in Autism Spectrum Disorders Is Modulated by Self-Generated Selective Attention. J Autism Dev Disord.

Wild, K. S., et al. (2012). Goal directed and goal less imitation in ASD. J Autism Dev Disord, 42(8), 1739-1749

Wild KS, Poliakoff E, Jerrison A, Gowen E (2010) The influence of goals on movement kinematics during imitation.Exp Brain Res;204(3):353

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