Science to Share

Mirror neurons

The broken mirror in autism

We’ve all heard it before; what you see on tv shows is not real. Many popular tv shows have autistic characters, like The Big Bang Theory, The Good Doctor and The A-word. These characters are a reflection of some autistic people, but many experience the opposite. My name is Tamara, I am 21 years old, I’m a master’s student and licensed teacher. I also have autism, just like 1-3% of people in the Netherlands. Like misconceptions that can arise from watching these shows, many exist on the mechanisms underlying autism. In this article, we will discuss how the Broken Mirror theory is debunked and what a more realistic explanation for the workings of autism could be. To learn more I interviewed Doctor Prinsen from KU Leuven who researched what underlies autistic traits.

First, let’s look at some of the symptoms others with autism and I may encounter. One of the most common and well-known symptoms is a lack of eye contact. Making eye contact can be quite stressful for us, so we tend to avoid it. Next to that, we can be hyper or hypo sensitive to stimuli. For me, this means I always wear sunglasses outside, I always have a pair of earplugs on me and I drink my coffee lukewarm. Others may just be the opposite; they could look at the sun without being bothered. They might tolerate noises that could be ear-splitting to non-autistic people or can touch extremely hot surfaces without a problem. Another issue we experience is difficulty with expressing empathy. We might not see what emotions you are showing on your face or what your body language is trying to tell us.

In her research, Doctor Prinsen investigated the Broken Mirror Theory and whether it holds given previous findings. This theory requires a bit of background information. Since autism is a disorder that affects behaviour and modulates behaviour in the brain, we will look there to find some explanations. Our brains consist of billions of cells; these brain cells are called neurons. These use tiny amounts of electric energy to convey messages to one another. Altogether, these neurons are what determines what we do and how we do it. Some researchers in the 1990s accidentally discovered some neurons that would activate when someone is observing someone else do something, like picking up a peanut. These neurons would not tell us what we are doing, but what someone else is doing. This mirroring action is why these neurons are called ‘mirror neurons.’ These mirror neurons help us learn from watching someone else; they help us understand what someone’s face is trying to tell us and with that, they help us feel empathy. The Broken Mirror Theory proposes that autistic people’s mirror neurons are not working, which makes sense given the symptoms of autism.

Another thing we, as people with autism, do is masking. Masking is what we do to appear ‘normal.’ We learn to smile when we’re supposed to, we force ourselves to make eye contact and we mimic your body language to make you feel we’re engaged in the conversation. If this sounds like it could mean that our mirror neurons work, but the actual mirroring does not happen naturally, that is because that is exactly what current research tells us. The more the Broken Mirror theory was investigated, the more it was shown that it does not quite fit. As Dr. Prinsen put it; ‘Initially the results were decently positive, but the more research was done, the more the results unfolded that this wasn’t as simple as initially proposed.’

Dr. Prinsen knew the Broken Mirror Theory was debunked when she started her research on how one part of the brain could be different in people with autism, which was submitted for publication in August this year (2021). She explained, ‘there were more nuanced theories that proposed that these mirror neurons were not necessarily broken in people with autism. So not broken by default, but perhaps less functional in certain social situations than those of other people.’ In her research, she looked for a difference between just repeating what someone else does and repeating what someone else does while they express emotion on their face in both people with and without autism. There were no significant differences in the basic functions of mirror neurons. Most people with autism can imitate what someone else does, even in social situations. These results are supported by yet another study by Schulte-Rüther and colleagues in 2016 that resulted in strong evidence that the imitation part of social interactions is intact. What they suggested is that the process of seeing a sad face and knowing it is sad by the position of the eyebrows and the corners of the mouth is just not paired to the emotion of being sad. When you don’t pair a facial expression to an emotion, you will probably not show empathy.

Altogether, we can say that there is no one answer to the role mirror neurons play in autism. While they usually are not ‘broken’, they probably communicate with other parts of our brain differently from those in non-autistic people. The fact that I have to say ‘probably’ already means it is special enough to study. With that, we can also say autism is a spectrum. The symptoms that I experience could be completely opposite in someone else who also has autism. Dr. Prinsen discovered that during her research as well; ‘Autism is a spectrum disorder. In some people, you would not expect them to be going about with a diagnosis at all, while in others it might be more clear. This was an eye-opener during the execution of the research, there is indeed a great variability in the social interaction and social skills and communication.’ The most important thing to remember here is that autism is not bad, there is nothing missing from autistic people and unlike tv wants you to believe; we’re all unique.



Curious where I got all this from? Read some of my sources:

Know Your Brain: Mirror Neurons (

Broken or socially-mistuned mirror neurons in autism? An investigation via transcranial magnetic stimulation

Intact mirror mechanisms for automatic facial emotions in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder

Autisme symptomen: waaraan herken je ASS? – Mentaal Beter