Why imitation is so important and how can speech and language therapy help children who struggle to imitate?
Imitation or copying starts in early infancy. When we observe a young baby and his parent or familiar adult we can see clearly and frequently that the baby will be intently looking at adult’s face and try to copy their facial expressions, smiles and all those funny baby sounds we often make with young babies.
These sounds are called “motherese” and are the beginnings of a little conversation between the parent and the baby. The “conversation can go back and forth for a long time and include sounds, as well as facial expressions.
A little later on, once the baby can crawl and sit up unaided the copying then goes on to include toys and objects. Mum or Dad will show their toddler how to use a drum or how to put a little train on the wooden tracks and the toddler will try and copy this. They may not succeed and be a little clumsy perhaps but the act of copying anything and everything their favourite adult does is typically seen throughout the day.
We all know and have laughed at mums or dads saying; ssshhh don’t say that in front of the baby he/she will copy you, watch your mouth! (as dad is swearing at the broken radiator….)
This imitation goes on for years and includes eventually of course little words, more words, putting words together and then creating sentences, all the while our toddler is listening to how their adults speak, not only what they say but how they say it. This is how dialects and accents can be transmitted easily from parent /family to child.
Copying in Children with Autism
We know that children with autism often struggle to imitate. We see children on the spectrum typically having great difficulty to copy adults or children; this can be seen in very reduced play with their peers in nursery for example.
Children with autism tend to have reduced joint attention and engagement with others and need to develop the ability and awareness to copy others in order to then engage more jointly with others.
Speech and Language Therapy can help with Parent Child Interaction work and Coaching, here is how:
During my coaching work with parents I teach step by step how to help a child who struggles to imitate:
We look at all the researched skills and actions that adults can take to help their little one to copy, starting with close observation of their child’s interests, then following and including their child’s play and copying/imitating their child in how they play. I teach steps in a graduated way so that it is easy to see the progress and joyful to have the results at the end.
The results are clear to see over time: our children on the spectrum learn to imitate actions, with objects and gestures, then sounds and words. Alongside this increased imitation skill the child can then develop more joint attention and engagement.
I would always recommend Parent Child Interaction Training as a first port of call as we learn so many great techniques which are well researched by the Hanen Programme, www.hanen.org. Do drop me a line if you would like to find out more.
Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.