As our readers may be familiar, compromised social interactions and communication represent the defining characteristics of children with many developmental disorders, such as Learning Disorders (LD) and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Consequently, these children find it burdensome or sometimes even physically painful to greet others—particularly to make physical contacts (e.g., shaking hands or hugging). So, when I first met Pennington, a four-year-old who had been diagnosed with ASD, I waved “Hello” at him, so as not to risk violating his interpersonal comfort zone. To my delight, Pennington, in response, charmingly waved back at me. It did not take me very long, however, to notice that he was waving at me with his palm facing himself.
This got me thinking. Pennington was willing and able to engage in social communications with me, a stranger, through waving: a major hurdle for many children with ASD. The challenge for him, ironically, appeared to have been more cognitive or even physical than social, in that he processed, interpreted, and produced the act of waving incorrectly. Children following the normative developmental pathways, by contrast, will not make such an error, even at the earliest stages where they can clumsily imitate the “bye-bye” waving motion. To effectively explain this anecdote, I will review recent research on the neuro-cognitive aspects of ASD and its development. Autism has historically been linked to various nervous structures, including brainstem, the cerebral cortex, and the cerebellum. But, until recently, no specific neurological evidence existed, directly explaining the communicative and interpersonal deficiencies among ASD children.
The Traditional Explanation
The “reverse bye-bye” waving by Pennington described above may be explained by most psychologists in terms of Pennington’s inability to reason appropriately. Specifically, when a child witnesses others waving at them, he would visually perceive it, and then interpret it in higher-order areas, which prompt him to conclude that it is a greeting action directed at him. Based on this premise, it is plausible to argue that, in Pennington’s case, the higher-order reasoning processes may have been disrupted, which caused him to simply reproduce the waving motion with the palm facing him, failing to infer the fundamental nature of the palm-outward waving: greeting. In fact, this rational reasoning model may currently be the prevailing explanation for such a phenomenon.
However, this explanation involves a controversy. Children waving back at us may be much more fundamental than what the rational reasoning model above suggests. Specifically, since even young children with limited and egocentric thinking skills can easily imitate others’ actions correctly, there must be a more direct system of sensory-motor representations which allow them to imitate others’ actions—without complex cognitive processes described above. Support for this view has recently emerged, and it involves the concept of mirror neurons.
Research on Mirror Neurons
Mirror neurons get activated when we observe the actions of others. For example, upon observing an individual grabbing a coffee mug to drink its content, the observer experiences the activation of the same neural network that would be activated if the observer were to actually grab a mug and take a sip. It is theorized to allow us to understand the intentions underlying others’ behavior. In other words, observation automatically activates the observer’s neural mechanism that would be activated for action execution, which allows us to: (1) interpret what the actor is trying to do; and (2) replicate the behavior as needed. This observation-induced activation is theorized to be essential in children’s socialization and learning, as it provides the foundation for children imitating and delivering the observed actions—contributing to the expansion of their behavioral repertoire.
Oberman and his colleagues (2008) tested the mirror mechanism among ASD children and found that this observation-triggered activation of neural mechanisms did not occur among ASD children. In addition, in a follow-up study, these researchers found the evidence of mirror mechanisms being activated in ASD children, when they are observing familiar individuals (e.g., family members, as opposed to strangers, actors on TV, etc.) carry out a task. Therefore, the mechanism itself appears much more selective among ASD children. According to this theory, in the opening anecdote, Pennington’s “reverse bye-bye” stemmed from the deficiencies in mirror neuron activities when I, a stranger, waved at him. He failed to interpret my waving as a greeting, and he instead “haphazardly” emulated the waving action based on his egocentric, palm-inward perception.
Mirror Neurons and Nonverbal Learning Disorder
So far, empirical research on the roles of mirror neurons in understanding and explaining developmental disorders has focused exclusively on ASD. There exists an interesting and unexplored possibility that mirror neurons may be potentially linked to other developmental disabilities, which involves compromised social skills. For example, the causes of nonverbal learning disorder (NLD), which is marked with deficiencies in social skills as well as spatial and motor skills, have yet to be defined adequately. In addition to egocentrism—or the inability to see others’ perspectives, which NLD children share with ASD children, NLD children also display disturbances in visual-spatial information. Given the visual-spatial deficiencies involved with mirror neuron dysfunctions noted earlier, it is reasonable to suspect that mirror neuron activities are linked to learning and social deficiencies among NLD children. Research among the NLD population may shed light not only on the causes of NLD but also on effective interventions. Assuming that mirror neurons indeed are contributing elements in NLD as well as ASD, the following suggestions may facilitate the efforts to foster positive-learning environments for affected children.
Implications for Socializing and Educating Children with LD-Related Deficiencies in Social Skills
Affected children only appear to experience mirror neuron activities when observing familiar individuals. Therefore, efforts to facilitate their learning, socialization and development should assume that children are unlikely to engage in observational learning unless familiar individuals are serving as models.
Expanding the social circle may indirectly yet monumentally contribute to affected children’s learning and development, as these children will have more individuals to “learn from”.
At the same time, these findings stress the importance of experiential learning (or “learning by doing”) among affected children. This is because their observational learning is highly selective.
Affected children’s egocentric behavior may be linked to the deficiencies in mirror neuron activities. As such, socialization efforts to address this issue should consider the factors noted above.
Since the clear, fundamental and selective neurological deficiencies among affected children are evident; this further discredits the notion that inadequate parenting is the cause of these disorders.
Oberman, L.M. et al. (2008). Modulation of mu suppression in children with autism spectrum disorders in response to familiar or unfamiliar stimuli: The mirror neuron hypothesis. Neurosychologia, 46, 1558-1565.
Ryburn, B., et al. (2009). Asperger syndrome: How does it relate to non-verbal learning disability? Journal of Neuropsychology, 3, 107-123.
Williams, J.H.G. (2001). Imitation, mirror neurons and autism. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 25,287-295.
Daisuke Akiba, Ph.D. is a tenured Assistant Professor (Educational Psychology) at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY, where he teaches Child Development, Motivation, Cultural Psychology, and Research Methods. He has studied and written extensively on the developmental, educational, and family experiences of children who are non-normative in their cultural backgrounds and psychological characteristics.