YES! Children learn by watching others. Imitation is a learning tool and the steppingstone to many other skills. Our brains are set up to learn from others by watching and listening to them and imitating what they do and say. For some children, this imitation comes naturally as they mimic the people in their lives. For other children, specifically children with Autism, imitationis a learned skill. Research in Autism tells us that children can learn to imitate, and early intervention is a key to success.
So…how can you help your child imitate? Strategically carry out steps and activities to support your child’s motivation to imitate. You want to set the expectation that you will imitate your child and expect that they should imitate you as well.
1. Echoing sounds. Start off with sounds and move to words and songs and finger plays. By imitating your child and expecting the same in return, you are teaching your child that their voice has power. This power leads to motivation to use their voice to get their wants and needs met.
2. Actions on objects. Bang a drum and encourage your child to bang with you. Zoom a car or roll a ball back and forth. Even throwing a scarf in the air can be motivating to get some mimicking going. Children with Autism tend to have an easier time with focus and motivation on objects. Mirroring of action on objects is a good jumping off place for more complex imitation skills.
3. Imitating facial expressions and body movements. Building upon activities you and your child already enjoy together, you can add more expectation of their participation with finger play and facial expressions. Pausing just before a favorite ‘Wheels on the Bus’ lyric and helping your child swish their hands as they become wipers is a way to build this mirroring of movements. Remove your hand over hand help as soon as you can to give your child autonomy in movement. Facial expressions can be serious or silly, but the more dramatic the better. For some children, physical actions such as tickles, can be motivating factors with imitation.
Repetition is important when building the motivation to imitate. Adults may start to get bored of using the same Jack-in-the-box toy or banging on the lollipop drum, but it takes children much longer to phase out of a favorite activity. Children’s songs have built in repetition with slight changes in the verses such as Old MacDonald.
Turn taking can be challenging for children. Take away that struggle to give up the drum stick and have one for you and your child to bang. Having access to two sets of toy animals, blocks etc. will also build into imitation without the stress of trying to get the toy for your turn.
Imitation is important. Often, we spend quite a bit of time ensuring a child has verbal and motor imitation skills well established. Being able to watch people and copy what they do and say, sets the stage for all future learning. If you see your child struggling with mimicking skills, reach out and we can help. Our ABA (spell out) and Early Start Autism Program is set up to strategically build skills for independence in children with Autism.
Reference: Rogers, Dawson and Vismara provide a framework from which to develop the necessary skills of imitation in An Early Start for Your Child with Autism.