Children with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) exhibit deficits both in imitation and motor imagery (MI) compared to typically developing children. Combined action observation and motor imagery (AO + MI) instructions can however enhance automatic imitation in both groups. In the present study we investigated the effects of AO + MI instructions on intentional imitation in children both with (n = 13) and without DCD (n = 12). On each trial participants observed and/or imagined before executing a familiar rhythmical pantomime action. These target actions were either habitually fast (tooth brushing or window wiping) or habitually slow (paint brushing or face washing), in the vertical or horizontal plane. Within each habitual speed, the target action speed was subtly manipulated across trials (fast vs. slow). Instruction condition was manipulated across three blocks of 16 trials: (1) observe before imitating the target action; (2) observe then imagine the action before imitating; (3) observe while imagining the same action before imitating (AO + MI). Kinematic analyses revealed typically developing children imitated the observed cycle times significantly better than children with DCD. A main effect of instruction showed imitation improved for AO + MI compared to the other two instructions. Within-group analyses found a significant advantage in DCD for AO + MI compared to observe then imagine. In typically developing children, imitation was significantly enhanced for AO + MI compared to observe then imitate. Combined AO + MI instructions therefore represent a promising new approach to refining performance of everyday rhythmical actions in children both with and without DCD, with implications for movement therapy and sports training.
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