ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2016, Vol. 24 ›› Issue (6): 958-973.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2016.00958

• Regular Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The myth of broken mirror theory of autism: Origins, problems and prospects

PAN Wei1; CHEN Wei2,3; WANG Yin4; SHAN Chun-lei5   

  1. (1 School of Rehabilitation Science, Nanjing Normal University of Special Education, Nanjing 210038, China) (2 Center for the Study of Language and Cognition, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou 310028, China) (3 Department of Psychology, Shaoxing University, Shaoxing 312000, China) (4 School of Psychology, New York University, New York 10003, USA) (5 School of Rehabilitation Science, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai 201203, China)
  • Received:2015-09-21 Online:2016-06-15 Published:2016-06-15
  • Contact: CHEN Wei, E-mail: WANG Yin, E-mail:


Autism are characterized by difficulties in reciprocal social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive activities and narrow interests. A core diagnostic criterion of autism is abnormal implicit social cognition. Based on the assumption that mirror neuron system is the unified neural basis of implicit social processes, the “broken mirror” theory attributes most social deficits in autism to impairments in mirror neuron system, leading to the issues with social skills, imitation, empathy, and theory of mind seen in people with autism. However, after a decade of extensive examination and verification, this theory has been facing increasing challenges from behavioral, neuroscientific and clinical research. This paper outlines literatures examining the unified role of mirror neuron system for implicit social cognition, and systematically review studies testing a global dysfunction of the mirror system in autism. We conclude that mirror neuron system plays a sufficient but not necessary role for implicit social cognition and very few evidence supports that an all-or-nothing problem with the mirror neuron system can underlie autism. The implications and future research directions are also discussed.

Key words: autism, mirror neurons, broken mirror theory, social cognition, action imitation, social responding