When we observe the start of an action sequence that can end in two possible ways (in the figure shown a piece of food is placed in the mouth or in a container on the shoulder) appropriate sympathetic muscle EMG signals are detected at the start of the sequence. Thus, if the sequence will end in food to the mouth, activity is observed in the mouth-opening mylohyoid (MH) muscle at the onset. Rizzolatti and collaborators find that typically developing children show an activation of their MH muscle already when they observe the experimenter's initial motor act, food reaching. This activation reflects their understanding of the final goal of the observed action. In children with autism this action-understanding motor activation is lacking. Further, when typically developing children actually perform the observed action, MH muscle activation is observed at the very beginning of the sequence, while in children with autism, the activation is not observed until immediately before the muscle is actually used.
Figure - Schematic representation of the tasks. (Upper) The individual reaches for a piece of food located on a touch-sensitive plate, grasps it, brings it to the mouth, and finally eats it. (Lower) The individual reaches for a piece of a paper located on the same plate, grasps it, and puts into a container placed on the shoulder.
They suggest that high-functioning autistic children may understand the intentions of others cognitively but lack the mechanism for understanding them experientially because they lack the chains of action-constrained neurons that code specific motor acts (e.g., grasping) according to the final goal of the action in which the motor act is embedded.