According to current research, children with ASD tend to display different neuro-anatomical characteristics such as slow-developing mirror neuron activity and hypostimulation of the fusiform gyrus (Kanvvisher et al., 1999; Pierce et al., 2001, 2004; Bolte et al., 2006). Mirror neurons play a role in learning, and the fusiform gyrus specifically functions to process human faces. Due to atypical functioning in these regions, children with ASD have deficits in processing facial expressions, recognizing familiar faces, and mimicking social-communicative behavior (Grelotti et al., 2002). These neuro-physiological challenges, along with other anatomical differences in the brain, create a cascade of problems for children with ASD — spanning from non-communicatively functional echolalic verbal responses to an impaired capacity to imagine the mental and emotional states of other people (theory of mind).
Current research shows that people with ASD have, in fact, slow-developing mirror neuron activity — not a damaged system, which was the former view. Dr. Christian Keysers, a neuro science researcher, stated, “While most of us have their strongest mirror activity while they are young, autistic individuals seem to have a weak mirror system in their youth, but their mirror activity increases with age, is normal by about age 30, and unusually high thereafter.” Thus, increasing mirror neuron activity in people with autism may improve their ability to imitate social behavior (e.g., facial expressions) or mimic motor actions (e.g., speech production). Video self-modeling is one evidence-based treatment intervention that may stimulate mirror neuron activity in people with ASD. An important component of imitation, however, is attention: a person has to focus on social behavior in order to mimic it.