BACKGROUND: Despite the fact that deficits in social communication and interaction are at the core of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC), no study has yet tested individuals on a continuum from neurotypical development to autism in an on-line, cooperative, joint action task. In our study, we aimed to assess whether the degree of autistic traits affects participants' ability to modulate their motor behavior while interacting in a Joint Grasping task and according to their given role.
METHODS: Sixteen pairs of adult participants played a cooperative social interactive game in which they had to synchronize their reach-to-grasp movements. Pairs were comprised of one ASC and one neurotypical with no cognitive disability. In alternate experimental blocks, one participant knew what action to perform (instructed role) while the other had to infer it from his/her partner's action (adaptive role). When in the adaptive condition, participants were told to respond with an action that was either opposite or similar to their partner. Participants also played a non-social control game in which they had to synchronize with a non-biological stimulus.
RESULTS: In the social interactive task, higher degree of autistic traits predicted less ability to modulate joint action according to one's interactive role. In the non-social task, autistic traits did not predict differences in movement preparation and planning, thus ruling out the possibility that social interactive task results were due to basic motor or executive function difficulties. Furthermore, when participants played the non-social game, the higher their autistic traits, the more they were interfered by the non-biological stimulus.
CONCLUSIONS: Our study shows for the first time that high autistic traits predict a stereotypical interaction style when individuals are required to modulate their movements in order to coordinate with their partner according to their role in a joint action task. Specifically, the infrequent emergence of role-based motor behavior modulation during on-line motor cooperation in participants with high autistic traits sheds light on the numerous difficulties ASC have in nonverbal social interactions.