Facilitation of Action Planning in Children with Autism The Contribution of the Maternal Body Odor


Imitation is a key socio-cognitive skill impaired in individuals with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC). It is known that the familiarity with an actor facilitates the appearance of imitative abilities. Here, we explore whether a highly familiar and socially relevant stimulus presented in the olfactory modality is able to improve spontaneous imitation as early as at the level of action planning. A group of 20 children with ASC and 20 controls observed their own mother or the mother of another child performing a reach-to-grasp action towards an object, under the exposure to their maternal odor, the odor of the mother of another child or no odor. Subsequently, children acted upon the same object with no specific instruction to imitate. Child’s movement initiation time (MIT) served as an indicator of motor planning facilitation induced by action observation. Results suggest that for children with ASC (but not controls) MIT was significantly lower when exposed to the maternal odor both when interacting with a familiar or an unfamiliar model. In the former case, the performance is comparable to controls. The familiar model in the absence of any olfactory cue is able to induce a facilitation effect, but the maximal facilitation on MIT is evident when maternal odor and familiar model are paired. We hypothesize that for children with ASC the maternal odor provides relevant social motivation for taking advantage of others’ actions when planning movements in an imitative context.

Brain and Cognition, 88, 73–82
Valentina Parma
Valentina Parma
Research Assistant Professor in Psychology