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

Let’s take some time to recall how your PE teacher taught you to do a somersault when you were young.

Or, how your mother taught you tie your shoelace.

Or, how you watched your friends playing hopscotch and joined them by doing the same.

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:



1. Performing chain of actions, like how it is done in nursery rhymes or warm-up exercises for swimming class.
2. Varying duration of an action, e.g. continuing shaking a maraca or banging drum for a song.
3. Varying magnitude of the same movement, e.g. how hard you throw a ball.
4. Increasing distance between the teacher and the child.
5. Increasing number of components copied in an action, e.g. copying sound and movement at the same time.
6. Deferred imitation, i.e. the child copies the action sometime after the demonstration.

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: Ms. Catherine Tam (Autism Partnership Behavioral Consultant)
Ms. Catherine Tam

Ms. Catherine Tam holds a Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She joined Autism Partnership in 2005 and began working as a Program Specialist. She has extensive experience with children and teenagers with autism in one-on-one and group settings. She is now responsible for providing individual ABA therapy and counseling to teenagers and young adults with ASD, supervising individual cases in Hong Kong, and providing professional training and consultation to families and agencies in Mainland China and overseas countries. She also produces ABA training videos and articles in the APSPARKS website for public education.


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