Autism is a neurological disability that comes in three identified varieties. Autism Spectrum Disorder describes these varieties as subtypes. The first is known as “Pervasive Developmental Disorder” which refers to behavioral and learning problems that are considered as a sort of mild mental retardation. Next is Asperger syndrome. Individuals with this syndrome show relatively well developed language abilities, but they have other autistic-like qualities. The third subtype is called “Childhood Disintegrative Disorder” and refers to children with normal development for the first few years, and then there is a sudden slowing of development which leaves the children unable to progress past a mental age of ten or so years.
Autistic disorder symptoms are put into three categories by the DSM-IV. These domains are social interactions, language or communicative abilities, and monotonous body movements or interests. In most cases, problems with social interaction emerge first as clear signs of possible autism. As early as infancy, an autistic person may have ambivalent behavior toward their caregiver, such as not smiling or lacking a desire to be held or comforted. As they develop beyond infancy into childhood an autistic child may not seek friendships and avoid eye-contact with others. Additionally, there seems to be a lack of theory of mind development into mid-childhood. With respect to language, an autistic child will not develop language or will do so very slowly. He or she may repeat what others say, rather than being linguistically productive, and refer to the self in the second or third person; a sign that they are merely emulating how others talk to them and not understanding communicative interaction. Finally, they may exhibit “stereotyped behaviors” such as repetitive motor movements or organization of objects, holding objects for extended lengths of time, and preference for strict routines. These behaviors suggest a lingering in the sensorimotor stage of development as well as a lack of symbolic or abstract thought. With all these symptoms in mind it is important to remember that not all autistic people are fully mentally disabled and may even have exceptional skill in a specific area (e.g. savantism).
One leading hypothesis that may explain why these symptoms occur in autistic people is the “Broken Mirror Hypothesis”. In summary, this theory suggests that deficient mirror neuron development is, at least in part, a cause of autism. “Broken mirrors” will lead to problems with observational learning and understanding social and emotional expressions in others. This would explain the lack of theory of mind, abnormal language development, and obsessive compulsive-like motor movements.
Many developmental and biological psychologists have used imaging and electrophysiological techniques to try to substantiate the affect of mirror neurons on autism. In one case, electromyography revealed that autistic children had a significant delay in their spontaneous mimicry responses to emotional facial expressions. This implies dysfunctional socio-emotional mirroring in autistic people, as typical young children will attempt to make the facial expressions they see in others (Tip: Make a funny face at a baby or toddler and they’ll try to do it; it’s great!). There’s another experiment comparing autistic and normally developing individuals who watched a stranger’s hand, a familiar’s hand, and their own hand opening and closing. The imaging results showed whether or not they had mirror neurons activate when they watched the action. A normal brain would essentially see the action and imagine doing it too, using mirror neurons to do this. It was found that autistic brain signals for mirror neurons were modulated by a familiar person in both developmental cases. This may mean that mirror neuron suppression occurs in autistic people due to a weakness to social unfamiliarity. So, the suppression problem can be overridden in therapy by using a person that the autistic child is familiar with, allowing for more likelihood these mirror neurons can develop.
The implications this theory has for therapy are that mirror neurons may be stimulated in development through familiarity and the use of a friend or family member in the therapy process. In terms of diagnosis, a mirror neuron suppression with unfamiliar socio-emotional interactions can be indicative of autism. In this way, it’s important to discover a broken mirror early so that it can be repaired toward a better refection.