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Motor differences in autism during a human-robot imitative gesturing task


  • Nicholas Fears University of Michigan
  • Gabriela Sherrod University of Alabama-Birmingham
  • Danielle Blankenship University of North Texas Health Science Center
  • Rita Patterson University of North Texas Health Science Center
  • Linda Hynan University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
  • Indika Wijayasinghe University of Louisville
  • Dan Popa University of Louisville
  • Nicoleta Bugnariu University of the Pacific
  • Haylie L Miller University of Michigan, School of Kinesiology



autism, imitation, motion capture, robotics, dynamic time warping, motor skills, gesture


Difficulty with imitative gesturing is frequently observed as a clinical feature of autism. Current practices for assessment of imitative gesturing ability–behavioral observation and parent report–do not allow precise measurement of specific components of imitative gesturing performance, instead relying on subjective judgments. Advances in technology allow researchers to objectively quantify the nature of these movement differences, and to use less socially stressful interaction partners (e.g., robots). In this study, we aimed to quantify differences in imitative gesturing between autism and neurotypical development during human-robot interaction. Thirty-five autistic (n = 19) and neurotypical (n = 16) participants imitated social gestures of an interactive robot (e.g., wave). The movements of the participants and the robot were recorded using an infrared motion-capture system with reflective markers on corresponding head and body locations. We used dynamic time warping to quantify the degree to which the participant’s and robot’s movement were aligned across the movement cycle. Results revealed differences between autism and neurotypical participants in imitative accuracy, primarily in the movements requiring unilateral extension of the arm. Imitative gesturing is a building block to later development of social-communication skills; difficulty with reproduction and functional use of gestures may negatively impact social engagement, and in turn, learning opportunities. It is important to understand the underlying motor control and sensorimotor integration mechanisms that support imitative gesturing in ASD in order to identify appropriate intervention targets.


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