The Big Break: Act & Sing Game is based on social neuroscience research. Imitation therapy has been used to help children with autism communicate since at least the 1970’s1. It is well known that individuals with autism demonstrate a characteristic deficit in the ability to understand the emotions of other people2,3,4,5. One potential factor in autism is a deficit in activity in the brain’s mirror neuron system (MNS)3,4,6,7. The MNS is implicated in the understanding of other people’s emotional movements and empathy8. The MNS has been shown to get “exercise” and become more functional with mimicry practice9. This is where our idea for Big Break began – we wondered if we could exercise MNS activity, and thus increase the neural capacity for empathy10. We have tested the same therapy for kids with autism as well as adults with Parkinson’s, who also exhibit motor mimicry deficits and corresponding decreases in emotional understanding.
The tendency to mimic others’ emotional movements automatically during social interaction is weaker in autism than in neurotypical individuals11,12,13,14, whereas in neurotypical individuals, mimicry tendencies are correlated with empathy and MNS responsiveness15. While kids with autism do not tend to engage in mimicry automatically, we do know that they can mimic when we ask them to12,7,13,14.
Practice imitating others has been shown to enhance responsiveness of the mirror neuron system during later observation of similar movements9, indicating that this activity enhances neural connections in this area. Furthermore, imitation training studies have already demonstrated promising improvements in social skills in children with autism16,17.
Our own data shows that imitation practice from playing the game enhanced social responsiveness and accuracy identifying emotions in song, in a group of children with high functioning autism, compared to a control group18,19 (see Figures 1 & 2, below). Parent surveys have indicated that kids are engaged by the game which is important for training adherence. Children have also indicated that they enjoy the game and feel like they are learning something when they play. Therapists have reported that kids demonstrate gains in joint attention, social responsiveness, and even verbal ability from playing the game together, and that kids, including nonverbal kids get excited when they’re playing the game and seeing their movies play back. Our analyses of the Big Break game are still ongoing. If you are interested in being part of one of our research studies, or conducting one of your own, we’d love to connect!
Figure 1. Accuracy for emotion in song. In a two-week daily training study with a prototype of the Big Break game, kids were placed in a group that played the game and took part in imitation of emotions, or played the same game but simply observed emotions. Kids in the imitation group gained significantly higher scores on recognition accuracy of emotion in song, compared to the observation-only control group.
Figure 2. Social Responsiveness Scale. In a two-week daily training study with a prototype of the Big Break game, kids were placed in a group that played the game and took part in imitation of emotions, or played the same game but simply observed emotions. Kids in the imitation group showed decreased scores on the Social Responsiveness Scale, indicating improvement in social responsiveness compared to the observation-only control group who did not improve.
- Adler, J. (1970). Looking for me. New York: NYU Film Library.
- Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The empathy quotient: an investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 34(2), 163–75. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15162935
- Williams, J. H., Whiten, a, Suddendorf, T., & Perrett, D. I. (2001). Imitation, mirror neurons and autism. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 25(4), 287–95. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11445135
- Williams, J. H. G., Waiter, G. D., Gilchrist, A., Perrett, D. I., Murray, A. D., & Whiten, A. (2006). Neural mechanisms of imitation and “mirror neuron” functioning in autistic spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia, 44(4), 610–21. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2005.06.010
- Yirmiya, Sigman, Kasari & Mundy, 2008)
- Williams, J. H. G., Whiten, A., & Singh, T. (2004). A systematic review of action imitation in autistic spectrum disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 34(3), 285–99. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15264497
- Oberman, L. M., Winkielman, P., & Ramachandran, V. S. (2009). Slow echo: facial EMG evidence for the delay of spontaneous, but not voluntary, emotional mimicry in children with autism spectrum disorders. Developmental science, 12(4), 510–20. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00796.x
- Carr, L., Iacoboni, M., Dubeau, M.-C., Mazziotta, J. C., & Lenzi, G. L. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: a relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(9), 5497–502. doi:10.1073/pnas.0935845100
- Lahav, A., Saltzman, E., & Schlaug, G. (2007). Action representation of sound: audiomotor recognition network while listening to newly acquired actions. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 27(2), 308–14. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4822-06.2007
- McGarry, L. M., & Russo, F. a. (2011). Mirroring in Dance/Movement Therapy: Potential mechanisms behind empathy enhancement. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38(3), 178–184. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2011.04.005
- Charman, T., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1994). Another look at imitation in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 403–413.
- McIntosh, D. N., Reichmann-Decker, A., Winkielman, P., & Wilbarger, J. L. (2006). When the social mirror breaks: deficits in automatic, but not voluntary, mimicry of emotional facial expressions in autism. Developmental science, 9(3), 295–302. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2006.00492.x
- Dapretto, M., Davies, M. S., Pfeifer, J. H., Scott, A. a, Sigman, M., Bookheimer, S. Y., & Iacoboni, M. (2006). Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nature neuroscience, 9(1), 28–30. doi:10.1038/nn1611
- Stel, M., Van den Heuvel, C., & Smeets, R. C. (2008). Facial feedback mechanisms in autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 38(7), 1250–8. doi:10.1007/s10803-007-0505-y
- Gazzola, V., Aziz-Zadeh, L., & Keysers, C. (2006). Empathy and the somatotopic auditory mirror system in humans. Current biology : CB, 16(18), 1824–9. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.07.072
- Ingersoll, B., & Schreibman, L. (2006). Teaching reciprocal imitation skills to young children with autism using a naturalistic behavioral approach: effects on language, pretend play, and joint attention. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 36(4), 487–505. doi:10.1007/s10803-006-0089-y
- Ingersoll, B. (2012). Brief report: Effect of a focused imitation intervention on social functioning in children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 42(8), 1768-1773.
- McGarry, L., & Russo, F. (2013). Simulation training using song to enhance emotion perception skills in autism. Advancing Interdisciplinary Research In Singing.
- McGarry, L., & Russo, F. (2015). The Acting Game: Mimicry of emotional song and speech to enhance emotion skills in autism. Society for Music Perception and Cognition.