Retrieval effects of observationally acquired stimulus-response bindings in participants with high and low autistic traits
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Description: It is often assumed that individuals with an autism-spectrum disorder (ASD) should perform worse than control participants in behavioural tasks for which mental (co-)representation of observed actions is essential. Empirical findings are inconsistent, at least when compatibility-based measures were obtained with automatic imitation (Brass et al., 2000) or joint Simon paradigms (Sebanz et al., 2003). It is to be noted that both paradigms are facing a set of challenges, which renders their ASD-specific findings as inconclusive. The present study sought to employ a paradigm that allows the study of mental representation of observed actions and at the same time is unaffected by the challenges both the automatic imitation task (i.e., irresponsiveness to social modulations) and the joint Simon task (i.e., referential coding as alternative explanation) are confronted with. We investigated whether retrieval of observationally acquired stimulus-response bindings are impaired in participants with high (compared to low) autistic traits. In an extreme group comparison, participants with high versus low autistic traits worked through an observational SR binding and a standard SR binding task (to control for general deficits in cognitive performance). As expected, groups did not differ with regard to retrieval of transient bindings between stimuli and self-performed responses (standard SR binding & retrieval effects). Against our expectations, the same was true for the retrieval of observationally acquired SR bindings, which was of comparable magnitude in both high and low autistic trait groups. Our findings therefore argue against the view that imitative effects are reduced when autistic trait expression is high. Implications for further research on mental representation of (observed) actions in autistic traits and the autism spectrum disorder are discussed.