Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Learning by observation in children with autism spectrum disorder

F. Fotia1a2 c1, L. Mazzonea3, D. Menghinia3, L. De Peppoa3, F. Federicoa4, V. Postorinoa3, E. Baumgartnera4, G. Valeria3, L. Petrosinia1a2 and S. Vicaria3

a1 Department of Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy

a2 IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia, Rome, Italy

a3 Child Neuropsychiatry Unit, Department of Neuroscience, Bambino Gesù Children's Hospital, Rome, Italy

a4 Department of Developmental and Social Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy


Background Observing another person performing a complex action accelerates the observer's acquisition of the same action and limits the time-consuming process of learning by trial and error. Learning by observation requires specific skills such as attending, imitating and understanding contingencies. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit deficits in these skills.

Method The performance of 20 ASD children was compared with that of a group of typically developing (TD) children matched for chronological age (CA), IQ and gender on tasks of learning of a visuomotor sequence by observation or by trial and error. Acquiring the correct sequence involved three phases: a detection phase (DP), in which participants discovered the correct sequence and learned how to perform the task; an exercise phase (EP), in which they reproduced the sequence until performance was error free; and an automatization phase (AP), in which by repeating the error-free sequence they became accurate and speedy.

Results In the DP, ASD children were impaired in detecting a sequence by trial and error only when the task was proposed as first, whereas they were as efficient as TD children in detecting a sequence by observation. In the EP, ASD children were as efficient as TD children. In the AP, ASD children were impaired in automatizing the sequence. Although the positive effect of learning by observation was evident, ASD children made a high number of imitative errors, indicating marked tendencies to hyperimitate.

Conclusions These findings demonstrate the imitative abilities of ASD children although the presence of imitative errors indicates an impairment in the control of imitative behaviours.

(Received July 26 2012)

(Revised December 03 2013)

(Accepted December 12 2013)

(Online publication January 10 2014)

Key words

  • Autism spectrum disorder;
  • imitation;
  • observational learning;
  • sequential learning


c1 Address for correspondence: F. Foti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Via dei Marsi 78, 00185 Rome, Italy. (Email: