Autism spectrum disorders comprise a range of neurodevelopmental pathologies characterized, among other symptoms, by impaired social interactions. Individuals with this diagnosis are reported to often identify people by repetitively sniffing pieces of clothing or the body odor of family members. Since body odors are known to initiate and mediate many different social behaviors, smelling the body odor of a family member might constitute a sensory-based action promoting social contact. In light of this, we hypothesized that the body odor of a family member would facilitate the appearance of automatic imitation, an essential social skill known to be impaired in autism.
We recruited 20 autistic and 20 typically developing children. Body odors were collected from the children’s mothers’ axillae. A child observed a model (their mother or a stranger mother) execute (or not) a reach-to-grasp action toward an object. Subsequently, she performed the same action. The object was imbued with the child’s mother’s odor, a stranger mother’s odor, or no odor. The actions were videotaped, and movement time was calculated post hoc via a digitalization technique.
Automatic imitation effects—expressed in terms of total movement time reduction—appear in autistic children only when exposed to objects paired with their own mother’s odor.
The maternal odor, which conveys a social message otherwise neglected, helps autistic children to covertly imitate the actions of others. Our results represent a starting point holding theoretical and practical relevance for the development of new strategies to enhance communication and social behavior among autistic individuals.