[Learning-How-To-Learn Series] The Importance of Refining Imitation Skills

In all of the above situations, beside listening to the spoken instructions, you learnt the skills by attending to the persons demonstrating the tasks and imitating their actions in an immediate or deferred manner. You would pay attention to the timing of each action, the number of repeated times of action, duration, magnitude, how the object or tool is manipulated, etc. You would notice the sequence of actions and carry out the chain of steps in order.

However, children with ASD often have great difficulties with imitation. Even when they do copy actions from others, many of them do not attend to the various components of an action, hence producing a sloppy, inaccurate imitation. And weak imitation skills often lead to deficits in language, pretend play, social interaction and emotional exchange. Furthermore, it slows down the acquisition of skills in many other areas like self-help skills, group skills, learning effectively in both academic and non-academic subjects, and community skills.

Yet, it is a common phenomenon that imitation training is only seen at the initial stage of therapy, targeting imitation of sounds, body actions and manipulation of objects, like musical instruments and simple toys. Contexts are often very structured and limited to desktop and therapy room. It may improve a child’s ability to understand the instruction of ‘copy me’, but the overly simple and non-daily samples of actions do not facilitate the child to attend and imitate various aspects of demonstration seen in natural settings.

At the beginning stage of training, it may be necessary to choose simple actions that do not require physical prompting from teacher like clapping hands, stomping feet, or banging drum to help the child understand the contingency of imitation, i.e. when the teacher does an action, the student should do the same. However, the training dos not stop when a child is able to copy numerous simple body actions or manipulation of items. Instead, imitation training continues with the goal of perfecting the skill in our children. The following are some aspects to consider when refining imitation skills:

early-signs_1Performing chain of actions

early-signs_2Varying duration of an action

early-signs_3Varying magnitude of the same movement

early-signs_4Increasing distance between the teacher and the child

early-signs_5Increasing number of components copied in an action

early-signs_6Deferred imitation

Some daily imitation examples are movements in nursery rhymes, self-help routines like brushing teeth and washing hands, pretend play with props and figurines, exercise routines, and art-and-craft activities. And, sometimes, specific breakdowns may be required because of the child’s specialized needs and abilities. For example, when a child intends to learn to play piano formally, the child may first have to learn to attend and copy movements of fingers on piano keys.

Since our ultimate goal is for our children to learn in natural environment, ranging from playground to classroom, the contents and contexts of teaching, regardless of the stage of training, should be as natural and meaningful as possible. By doing so, we also don’t have to worry about spending extra amount of time to generalize the skill in natural settings.

Information provided by Autism Partnership

Autism Partnership (AP) is one of the most established Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) service providers for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the world. Formed in 1994 in the United States, AP is run by professional clinicians and specializes in providing one-on-one therapy, group interventions and overseas consultation for children with ASD and their families.

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