Why are imitation skills important in autism?

Many neurotypical kids share a similar, natural learning process, progressing as “expected” based on what they experience. Kids with autism spectrum disorder, however, don’t have a similar process.

Imitation, role play and role modeling are so vital for learning, and most kids acquire these learning methods fairly quickly, but for children with autism, it’s not that easy. Children with autism have a hard time understanding information that isn’t literal; abstract information is a challenge for them to grasp and comprehend. However, if they can learn to successfully imitate, they’ll be many steps ahead of those who don’t.

Experts suggest first categorizing imitation skills, depending on the desired behavior and skill. What skill does your child need to acquire? If it’s speech, for example, they can learn by imitating sound. If it’s a particular desired action, like sitting straight in a chair, the child can be asked to imitate movement. More difficult actions, like cutting a piece of meat with a fork and a knife, may take more time and require smaller steps.

Those who specialize in imitation skills categorize them the following way:

The body: object imitation, motor imitation, verbal imitation and sound imitation

The length of time: immediate imitation, deferred imitation and generalized imitation

The function type: Is it cognitive imitation? Rational imitation? Selective imitation? Or goal-oriented imitation?

How do you teach an autistic child to imitate?


One typical way to teach an autistic child to imitate includes allowing the child respond to an adult’s request to do something specific with the adult showing the child exactly what that action is. Once the child does as asked (and correctly), the adult would then reward the child with something called a reinforcer, like food or a favorite toy or activity. This technique can be repeated again and again, using different rewards.

When do you teach an autistic child to imitate?


The above technique is so important and so helpful, but it doesn’t happen during social time, when neurotypical kids play “copycat” with their friends and caregivers. For non-autistic children, it’s when they’re in social situations when they recognize and realize the fun of being together and growing together, engaging in back-and-forth banter, social exchanges and other social skills.

Scheduled imitation sessions are necessary, but it’s also helpful to ensure that imitation skills are built during natural social scenarios. Consider your autistic child’s interests and how you might motivate your child to learn to imitate during “social hours.”

When this natural approach is used, kids with autism have found success in grasping the act of imitation with gestures and objects and people, and have been found to maintain these skills even after therapy. They can use what they learned in therapy and can use those very important skills outside of the clinical environment, and have even been found to improve in the areas of language, pretend play and attention skills.

What are ways we can promote and maintain these imitation skills in the home?


A fun way for parents to encourage their autistic child to imitate is through toys. Here are some ways to help your autistic child imitate functional actions through play:

1. First, watch your child’s functional play. Simply observe how your child chooses to play with their toys and objects. Do they push their toy cars? Do they stack their blocks? Are they able to sort shapes?

2. Now, imitate your child’s actions. Instead of asking your child to imitate you, your child will be in awe you’re imitating them. It’s a very motivating thing, because your child will pay attention to the fact you’re doing what they’re doing with whatever toy they’ve chosen. This begins a healthy interaction, and your child will be likely to copy what you’re doing. It then becomes a fun, happy game.

3. Now, help your child imitate a simple action. If your child has begun to bang on a drum with their hand, grab a drum stick and bang on that drum yourself with the stick. After your child has witnessed you doing this, hand them the stick, and ask them to drum away with the stick too.

4. Wait. Don’t expect your child to be able to do this right away, or on their own. You may want to wait 10 seconds to see if they can do it by themselves, or put your hand over theirs and help them do it for the first few times.

5. Encourage, reward and praise. Be enthusiastic and genuinely happy for them when they are successful, and gentle even when they’re not. Go back to step one again and again, until there’s success, and be sincere and joyful in your praise when they finally do it.

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