Background: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and those with Williams syndrome (WS) have difficulties with learning, though the nature of these remains unclear. Methods: In this study, we used novel eye-tracking and behavioral paradigms to measure how 36 preschoolers with ASD and 21 age- and IQ-matched peers with WS attend to and learn novel behaviors (1) from the outcomes of their own actions (non-social learning), (2) through imitation of others' actions (social learning), and across situations in which imitative learning served either an instrumental function or fulfilled social affiliation motives. Results: The two groups demonstrated similar abilities to learn from the consequences of their own actions and to imitate new actions that were instrumental to the achievement of a tangible goal. Children with WS, unlike those with ASD, increased their attention and imitative learning performance when the model acted in a socially engaging manner. Conclusions: Learning abnormalities in ASD appear to be linked to the social rather than instrumental dimensions of learning.
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- Social cognition
- Social learning
- Williams syndrome