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Autism and Mimicry


Posted by Shanti Roy on February 15, 2011

Mirror neurons are when the action of one person activates the same area of our brain that will perform that action. We may even sometimes do that action. This may be in the form of taking on the accent and mannerisms as the same person we are talking to. Scientists suggest it has something to do with empathy and people with autism have deficits in this area.

But many of us with autism who still have difficulties with empathy and relating to people can show this mimicry in other ways.

The first part of this mimicry is taking on an accent. It may look like it is imitated but really I think this is a form of echolalia. The accent is randomly put on or it could take the place of the autistic individual’s own accent. Usually my own accent which should be Australian is mixed with a bit of British and recently, American. I think the reason is because many of my favourite actors are British. I’m not even sure of what my actual accent should be, although I do recall once hating having a flat and deep Australian accent.

The first time I noticed I was good at mimicking people was when I was ten years old. Some of my actions were very slow and just like you would see in a film. Think when Frodo holds out the ring in Lord of the Rings. Actors have to act out every movement and I paid great attention to this. I started to hold objects like they do in films. And I acted my own imagination out too, much to the confusion of my Neighbours. 

It got really intense over ten years ago when I really got into Harry Potter. I would get annoyed at people’s poor imitation of Harry Potter, put on a perfect imitation but then I noticed I couldn’t shake the accent off. Not only that I started to dress like him (in casual clothes). I had a brief stint like this with Frankie Muniz who played Malcolm on Malcolm in the Middle. Actually I would always copy what people would wear. But I did it in such a way people thought it was my own style. I could even go as far as explaining the intensity of what I wear by saying my clothes usually have to feel like a part of my own skin. My clothes have always been a huge part of my personality. If I don’t feel like clothes are a part of me I can feel stiff or fake (especially when wearing the more girly clothes). Even clothes are itchy to me from sensory sensitivity can still feel comfortable but in a more identity type of way. I can even sometimes tell when people wear clothes in films or catalogues that they are just wearing an outfit. It’s not what they prefer to wear. It just doesn't look 'right' on them. 

It’s not just copying accents and clothes though. I can mimic how someone moves; even ‘feel’ like I’m making their face expressions. It’s hard to explain. I can’t see myself making the expression but I see it in my mind. It’s like I can feel the character’s own emotions.

Lately my mimicry of accents has stretched all across the Stargate cast spectrum, mostly SG-1 and Atlantis. There is still a bit of Harry Potter in there but it’s mixed with Daniel Jackson and Colonel Sheppard mostly. There’s also a bit of Dr McKay and Teal’c. I drew the line at Teal’c though. He has a very deep, calm and well spoken voice and I didn't like speaking like him. And because of this change my clothes are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. But do I really want to start wearing a Stargate uniform? The answer is of course, yes.

I also went through a huge Doctor Who phase which I still kind of am going through, but it’s not as intense as Stargate. I’ve randomly put on the accents of David Tennant, Matt Smith, Tom Baker, Colin Baker and even Jon Pertwee. I’m still a little bit attached to my sonic screwdriver too. I even started to dress like David Tennant’s 10th Doctor.

All these different accents that I mimic do help with social skills. Or I find myself putting them on when talking to people. And I do repeat a lot of phrases the character’s say to help me say anything to people, so it’s kind of like a mild echolalia. I recall when I was younger that during quiet moment I would say a phrase, usually a quote from The Simpsons. This is more of an intense form of that. I even find that if I want to explain something in such verbosity that I need to adopt Dr. Mc Kay’s or Daniel Jackson’s or even one of the Doctors’ accents just to get the words out in a clear and concise way. Sometimes even having those accents in my head as I think helps me think much more clearly.

It even helps to have an accent in my mind as I read. My favourite physicist is Michio Kaku and when I read his books it helps to have his voice in my head while I read. I could barely understand his words otherwise. And when I write it helps to have an accent in my head to help me. As I type I have the voice of Daniel Jackson in my head.

I’ve got a great auditory memory for sounds, not words. I won’t always remember what someone said to me but I can remember the way they said it. I have poor facial recognition and all I can really go by is someone’s voice and clothing to remember them. When the clothes change I become confused until I hear the person’s voice. My sound memory even helps me with my usual poor short term memory. If I forgot if I turned off an appliance remembering the ‘click’ of turning it off is enough to put my mind at ease. I remember once being dropped off at the train station and then suddenly remembering that I wasn’t sure if I turned off a hair straightener. Fortunately, my mother used it after me and remembered to turn it off.

I think this memory for sound helps me mimic certain accents. And my visual memory, which is also detailed, helps me choose out the perfect clothing. I have such a great attention to detail that every outfit I pick out that is similar to a favourite character’s must look exactly like it. I can tell. You can’t fool me; I’m autistic.

Some other people with autism may adopt the whole personality of a cartoon character or someone they feel closer to. I even heard from some people that they take on the personality of an animal because they understand it more and feel closer to it than another person. Even in non-verbal autistics they mimic speech by copying the rhythm of speech. I’ve noticed this in my niece who is far too young to be autistic but many infant behaviours continue to be displayed in autistic people.

 Not a whole lot of research has been done on this because it’s mostly done on the mirror neuron studies that suggest people with autism have a low level of these mirror neurons. But if we didn’t have empathy for anyone why would we adopt these personalities? I don’t think it’s a simple as ‘just echolalia’ or ‘no reason at all.’ There has to be a reason why I would gladly spend all day watching my favourite show and then mimic most of the characters’ accents and even dress like them. And then start to imagine my own scenarios up about that show. If I did it for no reason then I’d be mimicking a news reader’s accent. But I strongly believe this helps me empathise with people. The certain character’s I mimic I also sympathise with. My two favourite characters’ in Stargate are the very fast and technical talking genius types but I also have a soft spot for the more macho-like characters. I also get more distraught over sad story lines than I do about people that are facing hard times in real life. At least I do in real time where they are a bunch of agonising emotions all around me and too many voices. I prefer if people just stuck to the script.

So I do think that people with autism do have mirror neurons but have a weakness in some areas and strength in others. It’s like many skills in autism. You can have someone brilliant in math but virtually non-functional in artistic skills or vice versa. While my mirror neurons don’t help me read people like they do in non-autistic people they do help me to empathise with those that I spend the most time watching and help with language and social skills too. And who knows, maybe empathising with these fictional characters’ will help me to empathise with people in real life too.