A common question that educators, therapists, and even doctors hear from parents and caregivers is this: Why is it important for my child to learn how to imitate people?
This curiosity usually stems from when they watch their children singing and dancing during music and movement classes in school or when they follow through with imitation drills (clap hands, stomp feet, jump, say “aaah”) during therapy sessions. It may look like an activity done purely for fun, but there are plenty of thought processes going on when children are copying what others do. The ability of imitation plays a major role in the development of play, language, and social skills (Karlen, 2019). It also includes eye contact, focus and attention, and learning to react appropriately, especially during social situations.
We learn through watching how others behave and then copying it in our own ways (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961). The behaviours that we display also depend on how others react to them, either reinforcing them or fading them off (Skinner, 1948). In other words, behaviourism is everywhere in our natural environment. Naturally, we would seek to exhibit behaviours that have a positive effect on both ourselves and others. According to the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder do not know how to behave or react like their neurotypical counterparts due to their difficulties in social communication. This emphasises the importance of imitation skills and the reason we have to teach them how to behave or react appropriately through imitation.
Learning Play Skills
As Maria Montessori once said, “Play is the work of the child.” What may look like fun and games to adults is actually hard work for children when it comes to playing with toys and with other children. When you give a toy to a child with autism, they may not know how to play or interact with it unless you show them how to. For example, when you give a toy car to them, they may end up only turning the wheels with their fingers. You may have to guide them in pushing the car to help them learn to “drive” the car. While a toy can be played in various ways, turning the wheels being one of them, we want our children to have all the options available to them. Once they know how to imitate driving a car, they will be able to apply the same skill to other objects – whether it is driving another vehicle or even, rolling a ball. As they learn to imitate with objects, they can move on to playing at a higher level, which may include playing games with rules as well as with other children (Karlen, 2019). Furthermore, a study has shown that as children with autism begin to display more spontaneous imitation with objects, they displayed actions with familiar toys that have not been taught as well as engaging appropriately with unfamiliar toys (Ingersoll & Schreibman, 2006). This can lead to the development of skills allowing them to react appropriately to others in social situations.
Practising Social Skills
As mentioned above, we learn through watching others and imitating them. For children with autism, imitation allows them to take a look at others, observe interactions, and practise social skills by imitating others (Karlen, 2019). This applies in social situations where we have to interact with others to get what we want depending on the context – an object of interest, information that we need, and so on. For example, if a child with autism would like to play with an object, they would need to be able to request for it instead of just taking it without asking as it is not socially appropriate. Therefore, we would have to guide them in using gestures or words to make a request. As they learn how to communicate their needs through imitation, they will also learn the meaning in interacting with others and the motivation to repeat the behaviour (Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll, 2005). When they learn to imitate more gestures and echo words that are socially appropriate, they would be able to practise social skills as they learn what to do or say during situations. The more interactions they have with others, the higher the likelihood of forming meaningful friendships with others (Adreon & Durocher, 2007; White & Roberson-Nay, 2009).
Imitation also supports the development of language for children with autism. Studies have shown that imitation skills can predict children’s level of language – those who have strong motor imitation skills are likely to have more mature language skills (Stone & Yoder, 2001). As children accomplished in imitating movements, it will likely be easier for them to imitate speech compared to those who are weaker in this aspect, thus leading to high language skills. Moreover, other imitation skills, specifically facial and oral motor imitation, have been shown to aid language development. Children who imitate actions like blinking eyes, sticking out tongues, opening and closing mouths were more likely able to have spontaneous speech and display better speech articulation (Freitag, Kleser, & von Gontardf, 2006). As such actions involve the movement of the face and mouth, they help in building oral motor muscles necessary for speech development. Before children can echo sounds and words, they will need to have skills like opening and closing their mouths, and moving and rolling their tongues, which children with autism may have to learn in specific drills.
While it may be a simple task for neurotypical children to copy actions, it could be challenging for children with autism. The whole process of having to establish eye contact, observing the action, processing the information, and imitating the actions by moving themselves, can be complex. Imitation is a step-by-step process, especially for children with autism. It is never too late to learn imitation skills – be it when playing with toys during play time, clapping hands and dancing when listening to a song, repeating and emphasizing words when reading a book or watching a video, and even giving a high-five.
With this, I hope it is clear how important and fundamental the skill of imitation is, and it would be to my great delight to see more parents and caregivers interacting and engaging in activities that allow for interactions (including imitation) with their children.
Written by Alisha.
Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279. doi: 10.1177/10534512070420050201
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Pub.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575. doi: 10.1037/h0045925
Freitag, C. M., Kleser, C., & von Gontardf, A. (2006). Imitation and language abilities in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder without language delay. Journal of European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 15, 282-291. doi: 10.1007/s00787-006-0533-8
Ingersoll, B. & Schreibman, L. (2006). Teaching reciprocal imitation skills to young children with autism using a naturalistic behavioral approach: Effects on language, pretend play, and joint attention. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(4), 487-505. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0089-y
Karlen, C. E. (2019). Joint attention and imitation: How early social skills relate to language, social behavior, and overall responsiveness to early intervention in children with autism (Doctoral thesis, Illinois State University, Illinois, United States of America). Retrieved from https://ir.library.illinoisstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2130&context=etd
Skinner, B. F. (1948). 'Superstition'in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38(2), 168. Retrieved from https://www.all-about-psychology.com/support-files/superstition-in-the-pigeon.pdf
Stone, W. L. & Yoder, P. J. (2001). Predicting spoken language level in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 5, 341-361. doi: 10.1177/1362361301005004002
Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The ontogeny and phylogeny of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675-691.
White, S. W., & Roberson-Nay, R. (2009). Anxiety, social deficits, and loneliness in youth with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(7), 1006-1013. doi: 10.1007/s10803-009-0713-8