Observing another person performing a complex action accelerates the observer's acquisition of the same action and limits the time-consuming process of learning by trial and error. Observational learning makes an interesting and potentially important topic in the developmental domain, especially when disorders are considered. The implications of studies aimed at clarifying whether and how this form of learning is spared by pathology are manifold. We focused on a specific population with learning and intellectual disabilities, the individuals with Williams syndrome. The performance of twenty-eight individuals with Williams syndrome was compared with that of mental age- and gender-matched thirty-two typically developing children on tasks of learning of a visuo-motor sequence by observation or by trial and error. Regardless of the learning modality, acquiring the correct sequence involved three main phases: a detection phase, in which participants discovered the correct sequence and learned how to perform the task; an exercise phase, in which they reproduced the sequence until performance was error-free; an automatization phase, in which by repeating the error-free sequence they became accurate and speedy. Participants with Williams syndrome beneficiated of observational training (in which they observed an actor detecting the visuo-motor sequence) in the detection phase, while they performed worse than typically developing children in the exercise and automatization phases. Thus, by exploiting competencies learned by observation, individuals with Williams syndrome detected the visuo-motor sequence, putting into action the appropriate procedural strategies. Conversely, their impaired performances in the exercise phases appeared linked to impaired spatial working memory, while their deficits in automatization phases to deficits in processes increasing efficiency and speed of the response. Overall, observational experience was advantageous for acquiring competencies, since it primed subjects' interest in the actions to be performed and functioned as a catalyst for executed action.
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