What is Imitation and Why is it Important?

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

Imitation is a crucial aspect of skill development, because it allows us to learn new things quickly and efficiently by watching those around us. Most children learn everything from gross motor movements, to speech, to interactive play skills by watching parents, caregivers, siblings, and peers perform these behaviors.

However, because children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty with communication and social skills, they may lack the ability to learn to imitate. This can significantly limit the skills they can acquire by observing others. If a child with autism does not learn to imitate others, he or she may fall even further behind.

The good news is that we can teach imitation skills to children with ASD by using some basic principles of applied behavior analysis, or ABA. Practitioners of ABA will often use the following process to teach a child (or adult) to imitate:

First, the teacher provides a model, or example, of desired behavior. We then provide a prompt to guide the student to do the same behavior. After the child responds by copying the behavior, we provide a reinforcer (reward). In a structured session, this might be a toy, food item, tickles, or praise. We then repeat this process, fading (using fewer) prompts as we go, so the learner is doing a bit more of the work, until she (or he) is able to imitate independently. Over successive learning opportunities, the teacher accepts increasingly closer attempts to copy the behavior, until the student’s action resembles the model.

Consider the following interaction: a mother covers her face with her hands, then quickly removes her hands to reveal her smiling face and says, “peekaboo!” The young child loves this, tries on her own, but can’t quite get her arms and hands to cooperate. Mom provides some hand-over-hand prompting to help her daughter cover and reveal her face. For each attempt, the child gets a lot of positive feedback from mom, even though she got some help. Mom then takes a turn, and her daughter tries again, on her own this time, doing more of the movement independently. Again, mom praises, as this time the child has done even better. Over time, mom fades the prompts until her daughter can participate independently and imitate more complex behaviors. Her hands may flail about at first, but after lots of practice, she gets better. She may even respond in a more complex fashion by pairing the action with a vocalization and surprised look. Eventually, as she gets really good, mom will praise only the more complex behavior.

This is a simple example that could apply to how any child learns interactive play. For learners with autism, however, there are a couple of important considerations to keep in mind when teaching imitation. First, you’ll likely want to start off by teaching gross motor movements. These are easy to prompt and the child can more easily discriminate them from one another. Provide prompting immediately, with the goal of fading prompts as quickly as possible. Make sure the expectation is for the child to copy the behavior immediately after the model, ideally within three seconds. This speed is important because it will allow you to teach more complex, multipart behaviors in the future. It will also contribute to better instructional control. Intermix movements, meaning vary the models you’re teaching. You want the child to learn to copy whatever you do, not just a single action. After achieving success, move to fine motor actions such as small hand movements. Also, consider teaching imitation with objects, or imitative actions that can be useful for developing interactive play skills.

Strong imitative skills provide an entry point for a child with autism to learn about others, and can open up a wide range of potential learning opportunities! For guidance specific to your child, please contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, for consultation.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit