Teaching Object Imitation to Children with Autism

All children learn language, social skills, and play skills through imitation. Kids with autism and toddlers with signs of autism or other delays tend to be very delayed with imitation. So today we are talking all about how to teach imitation using objects. I recently did a Q&A with my online course members and was asked a question about object imitation so I want to talk to you about that today.

“[I have] a 33-month-old who is on module five of the early learner course. He’s very good in terms of verbal imitation, but not non-verbal imitation. And most of his actions that he knows are rote as per his BCBA. We have to do hand over hand before he can do a new action. Even when he is watching TV, he does not do the action, but sings the song.” 

Autism and Object Imitation

One thing you need to do in situations like this is to get object imitation straight. To improve imitation in children, we want to collect identical items of things. For instance, two little drumsticks, two plastic spoons, two plastic cups, two green napkins.

You’re not going to present all of these things at the same time. The real goal isn’t to target that a child will put the red block in the cup, but that they copy an action. To prevent rote responding you want to have each set of items do two different things. 

So I would keep all of these things together in a bag. Then I would sit catty corner from the child and give one set of objects to the child and one set of objects for me. For instance, one block and one cup. To get object imitation going, you say, “do this” and then you move an object. Put the block in the cup. And then if you need to, you can help him by tapping on the cup or putting the block in. That’s imitation with a prompt. You might want to try the exact same thing without a prompt or with less of a prompt.

Object Imitation and ABA

Now, it sounds like this question came from a listener who has a behavior analyst and they might want to write down targets, like “flip the cup” or “red block in cup” or “tap red block two times.” That’s fine. But if the child can put a bigger red block in, they should be able to put a yellow block in.

You want to get that generalized responding going and not focus on just every time he sees a yellow block, he knows that goes into the cup. The big thing is in the beginning, you have a set. They have a set, it’s identical. You might be able to then get to one set where you both do the action with the same items. Or you can have more functional toys, like a farm or a dollhouse. Make the doll go up the steps and he has an identical doll to make it go up the steps.  

This should be a fun program and should not involve crying or upset. If they need, you can maybe use less materials.

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Beyond Object Imitation

So once you get the child willingly, happily doing object imitation, then you start with gross motor imitation. Don’t work on one thing at a time. Each of these should have three to five targets you’re working on at a time. So I like to start with motions that also involve noise, like clapping. You could say, “do this” and touch your head.

The problem with using your head is the child can’t see it unless you’re in front of a mirror. And so sometimes it helps to have the motions be in front of them. The other important thing, when you are trying to teach imitation skills is you say, “do this” and then you move. Do this is kind of a signal for like, “oh, I have to copy exactly.” 

It starts out with object imitation. Then you go to gross motor imitation along with nonverbal imitation and behavioral imitation. Then once you get a number of gross motor skills together, you could start fine motor. After that, you can start head motions. You could see how functional yes versus no is. Now, whether they cognitively understand yes and no is going to be another skill. But shaking head yes and no. Then oral motor skills. But you don’t want to start here because it’s not appropriate to prompt oral motor skills. So you have to really start at the very beginning and move up to get your imitation strong. 

Learn More About Object Imitation

All kids learn through imitation. That’s the way they learn language, social skills, play skills, and pretty much everything. So we have to make sure that we’re working on imitation, starting with object limitation.

If you would like to be a part of my community or learn more, you can always attend a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshops

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Transcript

All children learn language and social skills and play skills through imitation and kids with autism and toddlers with signs of autism or other delays tend to be very delayed with imitation. So today we are talking all about how to teach imitation using objects first and foremost, um, in your plan. So let’s get to this special little video blog on object imitation. Welcome back to another video blog. I am Dr. Mary Barbera, autism mom, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and bestselling author of the brand new book, Turn Autism Around: An Action Guide for Parents of Young Children with Early Signs of Autism, just came out at the very end of March, 2021.

So it’s, um, selling really well. It’s helping a lot of people. So you haven’t heard about it, you want to learn more, you want to get free book resources with or without a book purchase. Just go to turnautismaround.com. So this video blog is actually a little excerpt from a question and answer call I did with my, um, online course members today.

And the question revolved around imitation and how to teach a child imitation skills. And I actually demonstrated with some objects. So let’s play that Q and A session on object imitation. So I do have a little show and tell here, and this I’m going to jump down to a question on a 33 month old who is on module five of the early learner course, he’s very good in terms of verbal imitation, but not non-verbal imitation.

And most of his actions that he knows are rote as per his BCBA. We have to do hand over hand before he can do a new action. Even when he is watching TV, he does not do the action, but sings the song. So I have some more information about what I might look at as part of the course. Um, but one of the things that I am not sure exactly where this is in the courses, but the one thing you need to do is get object imitation straight.

Okay. So we want it, we want to collect, and I did this last night when I saw this question, we want to gather identical items of things. This is to improve imitation. We want to start with object invitation. So first we have to gather some stuff that looks identical. So I found these little drumsticks that are identical, two plastic spoons, two plastic cups, two green napkins.

Two yellow blocks. Um, you know, you could get two red blocks. Okay. So you’re not going to present all of these things at the same time. I just wanted to show you first we gather items, um, and the real goal isn’t to target, he’ll put the red block in the cup and the other thing to prevent rote responding is you wanted to have each set of items do two different things. And I didn’t find like, in my little search last night, I didn’t find like two little cars that match. If you go through drive through, which is not good, I’m not, uh, not agreeing that we should be driving through and getting happy meals, but you know, it happens.

And sometimes if you have two kids, you get two identical happy meal toys. So those kinds of things, uh, can be good to use for object imitation. So I would keep all of these things together in a bag. And then it’s time for object imitation. So while I have two cups, I, um, I don’t have a child here, but say I do have a child and he’s sitting next to me or catty corner from me, these two things, one block and one cup are his set and my set is here, one cup and one block. So he’s got his set. I have my set and then to get object invitation going, you say, do this and then you move and then if you need to, you can help him by, um, you know, tapping on or putting in. Okay. So, so that was with a prompt.

You might want to try the exact same thing without a prompt, do this, or with less of a prompt. He does it. Okay. So then you also might want to have the cup here, but instead of saying, do this and going in, you say, do this and you see how we use the objects for different things. We could even have all the objects out and we could say, do this.

So that’s the kind of thing. Now, if it sounds like this question came from a listener who, who has a behavior analyst and they might want to write down targets, like flip the cup or red block in cup or top red block two times. That’s fine. But this is what we’re after. We’re after, anything, you know that, I mean, if the child can put a red block in, a bigger red block in, they should be able to put a yellow block in.

So, you know, obviously it doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. Um, then maybe do this and then you say, do this. Um, you want to get that generalized responding going and not focus on just every time he sees a yellow block, he knows that goes onto the, the cup. Um, the other thing you can do is, is just with blocks, you could, um, you know, and this is more about like a functional place, play, do you know he has his block do this. And then he does that, um, that is really good, uh, spoons in cups, you know, do this, and then you could do do this. It’s more of like a play thing. Um, you could even pretend to eat, do this. Um yum yum yum yum, not to put it in your mouth, obviously, uh, cars, whatever you have.

But the big thing is in the beginning, you have a set. They have a set, it’s identical. You might be able to then get to a, you know, one set, do this, and then he repeats it. Um, do this and he repeats it. Or you have more functional toys, like a farm or a doll house. Do this, make the doll go up the steps and he has a non-identical doll to make it go up the steps.  Once you get, and this should be a fun program. This should not involve any issues. You know, if they need more prompting or more help, you know, maybe less materials, maybe this is too many materials. I just brought out a variety. Um, just looking around my house quickly. So once you get, um, the child willingly, happily doing object imitation, um, then you start with gross motor imitation, which usually the first two things, and, don’t work on one thing at a time. Each, each of these should have three to five targets or three to five things you’re working on at a time. So I like to start with do this, like motions that also involve noise versus do this, um, do this, you know, or something like that. Uh, you could say, do this, touch your head.

The problem with head is the child, um, can’t see it unless you’re in front of a mirror. And so sometimes it helps to like have the, the motions be, um, in front of them even do this. Um, and the other important thing, when you are trying to teach imitation skills is you say, do this and then you move. So if I’m saying do this and you know, it’s do this.

Um, because it’s a clear, like do this is kind of a signal for like, oh, I have to copy exactly. And, um, it starts out with object and mutation. Then you go to gross motor. Then once you get a number of gross motor things together, you could start fine motor, like, do this, do this, do this. Um, you could start, uh, after that you can start head motions, do this.

You could see how functional this is. Yes versus no. Um, now whether they cognitively understand yes and no is, is going to be another skill. Um, but shaking head yes and no, even, you know, if they can do that, then oral motor do this, ah, do this, not, not even to say it, do this, do this. But if they can do all of those things, but you don’t want to start here because there’s no way to prompt this, or it’s not appropriate to prompt oral motor.

So you have to really start at the very beginning and move up to get your invitations strong. Most kids, all kids learn through imitation. That’s the way babies and toddlers learn. That’s the way they learn language. That’s the way they learn social skills, play skills and pretty much everything. So we have to make sure that we’re working on imitation, starting with object limitation.

I hope you enjoy that short excerpt from my community. If you would like to be a part of my community or learn more, you can always attend a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshops. If you liked this video, I’d love it if you share it with others, give me a thumbs up, leave a comment and I’ll catch you next week on another episode of Turn Autism Around.

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