Background: Motor deficits in autism have a double aspect: on one side, they are neglected by standard diagnostic procedures, on the other they are very frequent (70%) and promising as early indicator of the syndrome. Their characterization is extremely relevant, as they could impact on social abilities based on the understanding of others’ actions. Method: Fifty-two typically developing children (TD) and 13 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) took part to the study. Children were evaluated in pantomime execution, and in two tasks based on pantomime observation: recognition of pantomime meaning, and error recognition, with observed pantomimes that could contain spatial, temporal or body-part-as-tool errors. Results: TD children performance in tasks based on observation appeared strongly associated to individual motor skills. In general, ASD children exhibited a poorer performance than TD in all tasks. Most interestingly, in both pantomime execution and error recognition they showed a parallel and selective prevalence of spatial errors, whose scores resulted to be correlated with the autistic symptoms severity. Conclusions: In TD children, the capacity to decode the actions done by others relies on the observer motor repertoire. In children with autism, the parallelism between deficits in pantomime execution and recognition suggests that during action observation the motor resonance is impoverished due to an impaired motor repertoire, thus impeding a proper social contact with others.
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