Teaching Imitation to Children with Autism
Imitation is one of the primary ways that children learn how to navigate the world around them. By observing and mirroring the behaviors of others, children develop the language skills and social skills needed to communicate with others. The range of skills learned through imitation is vast and includes speaking, writing, facial expressions, and body language. Children with autism may struggle to learn new skills if imitation does not come naturally to them. The good news is that there are ways to teach children with autism how to imitate others.
Why Teach Children with Autism to Imitate Others?
Teaching children with autism to imitate others is crucial if they are to learn the social and academic skills that will help them to interact with their peers. Most imaginative play is derived from imitation. When children pretend to be doctors, teachers, or firefighters, they are imitating the actions that they have seen from adults in these professions. Playing with dolls is also a child’s way of imitating their parents. Copying animal sounds and pretending to be animals is another form of imitation. If autistic children are to successfully engage in play with their peers, they need to be able to imitate.
Children with autism will have an easier time learning social skills if they are taught how to imitate others. Social skills are primarily learned through studying and copying adults and peers. Children learn how to greet others, how to say goodbye, how to show affection appropriately, and how to share through imitation. Perhaps more importantly, they develop social cues such as facial expressions, gestures, body language, and tone of voice through imitation. While reading and giving social cues might not come easily to some children with autism, imitation can help them to develop these skills and interact appropriately with others.
Children with autism who are able to imitate others can use this skill to help them flourish in the classroom. Imitation is necessary for children who are learning new academic skills. Children learn how to form letters and words by imitating their teachers and copying the shapes of the letters. They learn how to handle books, turn pages, and focus on words through imitation. Often, young children will learn sight words by pointing to words that have been read to them and repeating the words aloud. Older children learn skills such as sentence writing and paragraph writing by watching teachers as the model these skills and imitating the teacher’s writing process. Many teachers practice think-aloud as they read or solve problems to encourage students to imitate their thought process in order to improve their reading comprehension and problem-solving skills. Since most teachers expect students to learn academic skills through imitation, it is essential that students with autism are taught how to imitate.
Ways to Build Imitation Skills in Children with Autism
When teaching a child imitation, you must first gain their attention. Once you have their attention, you can try different strategies to encourage imitation. Be sure to have a way to reward your child when they attempt to imitate your actions and words. Positive reinforcement will help children to remain engaged as they develop their imitation skills.
- Physically guide children: One way to teach imitation to younger children is to physically guide them through the process. Try modeling a movement and then gently guiding the child’s hand to help them copy the movement. For example, touch your nose and then guide the child’s hand to touch their own nose. Be sure to demonstrate excitement and reward your child every time they imitate your actions.
- Initiate imitation: Children can learn how to imitate others when their own actions are imitated. When parents and caregivers engage children by imitating their actions, they are teaching children how to imitate. Gain your child’s attention and then imitating one of their actions. If they pick up a toy and shake it, imitate their actions and then demonstrate excitement to encourage the child to continue. If they spin in a circle and fall to the floor, spin in a circle and fall next to them. If they flip through a book, pick up the book and flip through it. Be sure to remain excited and playful throughout these interactions. After a few rounds of imitating your child, introduce your own movement and wait for them to imitate you. Praise and reward them for copying your behaviors. This will help children to see imitation as a form of play and bonding. Eventually, they will learn to engage others through imitation.
- Teach imitation through games: Many games are designed to promote imitation. Songs such as “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” encourage children to copy your motions as they sing along. Other games like Simon Says teaches children to follow the leader. Play these and other imitation games with your child. If they have difficulty copying your motions, physically guide them and reward them when they copy the behaviors. Eventually, you can phase out the physical guidance and they will be able to imitate independently during these games.
- Teach imitation through workbooks and worksheets: Workbooks and worksheets are great ways to teach children concrete imitation skills. Worksheets can be used to teach children imitation words such as copy, repeat, and follow. Parents and teachers can use worksheets to teach structured lessons that address skills like copying movements, tracing letters and words, and imitating expressions. Pictures and instructions in imitation workbooks help students to work through and practice different forms of imitation.
Children with autism who are able to study and imitate others have an easier time learning the social and academic skills that will help them through life. Help your child learn confidently by routinely teaching imitation skills at home and at school.
Imitation can be a hard skill to develop for many children with autism. It might not come naturally for some individuals. When this happens, other areas of growth may be affected. For example, language development, play skills, interacting with peers and following instructions or directions are all impacted by a person’s ability to imitate. For this reason, teaching imitation is a big area of focus for many caregivers and educators of children with autism. Some people will use a structured, drill-like setting where the child is reinforced for imitation after the adult says something like “follow me” or “do this” as they perform an action. If the child performs the action, the adult will give the child a preferred item as reinforcement. Others may choose a more natural setting to work on imitation, such as play time. They may choose to use toys or activities that the child really enjoys to spark imitation lessons. For example, they may start by imitating the actions that the child makes with the toy in order to get the child to notice. After this is successful, they may see if the child will take notice of what the adult is doing with the toy and imitate the actions of the adult.
Autism Classroom has a few resources to help attempt to teach imitation skills.