What is Imitation and why is it important?

Imitation involves a child’s ability to copy others’:

  • actions with objects (such as banging on a drum, pushing a car)
  • gestures and body movements (such as clapping hands or waving)
  • vocalizations (sounds) or words

Typically-developing children learn to imitate in infancy, and has been noted as early as the neonatal stage. If you watch a baby and their caregiver interacting, you will likely see both baby and caregiver imitating each other’s sounds, actions, and facial expressions. This back-and-forth imitation is an early conversation without words, and it helps infants learn to:

  • express interest in their caregiver for social reasons, as opposed to expressing basic needs for food or sleep
  • share an emotion with their caregiver
  • take turns
  • pay attention to their caregiver

There are two distinct functions to imitation:

  • Social function: engage in social and emotional exchanges with others
  • Learning function: to acquire new skills and knowledge

In typically-developing infants, imitation emerges early in development and plays an important role in the development of cognitive and social communication behaviours, such as play, joint attention, and language. Sustained reciprocal imitation is the predominant mode of social interaction and preverbal communication between same-aged toddlers. These imitative exchanges appear to foster continued social interaction by communicating a common understanding of ongoing activities and play a role in the acquisition of more sophisticated play skills.

The imitation of peers serves to increase and refine peer interactions during early childhood and remains a strong elicitor of social interest and interaction throughout childhood. In summary, the use of imitation in infancy and early childhood is associated with the development of more sophisticated social communication and various other skills.

Imitation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Children with ASD often have great difficulty with imitation. These difficulties have been reported on a variety of tasks including body movements, gestures, use of objects, vocalizations, and facial expressions. Researchers have studied the imitation abilities of children with ASD, and the effect this has on other areas of development. They have found that:

  • their ability to imitate gestures and body movements predicts their language outcomes
  • their ability to imitate actions with objects is related to the development of their play skills
  • their difficulty with imitating other children’s actions affects their peer play
  • they need to develop some imitation skills before they are able to acquire joint attention (the ability to share a focus with another person on an activity or object)

Due to its connection to other areas of development, many researchers have suggested that imitation is an important focus of intervention for children with autism, and that teaching imitation may result in improvements in children’s overall abilities.

Strategies to encourage imitation skills at home

  • imitate the actions, vocalisations and gestures of your child (if your child babbles or makes some sounds, copy exactly that)
  • do/use things that are highly motivating to your child – follow their lead!
  • stay at eye-level with your child while imitating them, encourage shared eye contact and shared moments of enjoyment (smiling back at your child if they smile at you)
  • be face to face with your child or within their field of vision

Please see a qualified Speech Pathologist for additional guidance, proven techniques, and fun and engaging solutions to help with your child’s imitation and communication skills!