Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

An Overview of Imitation Skills in Autism: Implications for Practice

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

An Overview of Imitation Skills in Autism: Implications for Practice

Article excerpt

Research findings suggest certain forms of imitation may be relatively more difficult for individuals with autism compared to typically developing peers. Findings of deficits in imitation skills have significant implications for intervention approaches given the critical nature of imitation to one's ability to learn from the environment. This article provides an overview of the research findings in behavioral and cognitive developmental psychology on imitation skills in autism. Implications of current findings for intervention are presented and recommendations for practice-relevant research are also made.

Implications for Practice

Autism spectrum disorders involve a complex array of learning and behavioral deficits and excesses. Although autism is characteristically heterogeneous, individuals with autism display these deficits and excesses in the following three areas: communication, social relationships, and behavioral perseveration and rigidity. The heterogeneity of autism allows for few conclusive statements about learning styles of individuals with autism. The learning characteristics that have been identified include problems with perseverative responding (e.g. position preferences), overselective responding, and poor skill generalization.

Recent research in cognitive developmental and neuropsycholgy suggests that another possible characteristic learning deficit in individuals with autism may include imitation. Much of the research on imitation deficits in individuals with autism is drawn from between-group designs comparing the skills of primarily children with autism to children matched on verbal or non-verbal mental age. In various studies, children with autism underperform on various imitation tasks compared to the control groups (Heimann, et al., 1992; Ohta, 1987; Jones & Prior, 1985; Hammes & Langdell, 1981). However, these findings appear to be in contradiction with clinical observations of excessive imitative ability (e.g. echolalia) and findings from applied behavior analytic research indicating success in teaching imitation to children with autism.

Given the critical nature of imitation to learning, understanding the nature of imitation skills in individuals with autism is necessary to developing effective early intervention and instructional practices. This article will highlight relevant research and practices on imitation skills in individuals with autism. Behavioral and cognitive developmental disciplines have been the most prolific in the study of imitation skills in individuals with autism. As such this article will focus primarily on the contributions of these disciplines.

Our fairly limited understanding of the nature and impact of deficient imitation skills in children with autism are in part due to disparate theoretical and methodological approaches between behavioral and cognitive developmental research. Cognitive developmental theories view imitation as a keystone skill representing a child's understanding of the relationship between himself and the environment. Imitation represents a child's first understanding of person-environment relationships within cognitive developmental theories. Thus, imitation is thought to allow for the development of other critical person-environment relationships such as communication and social skills.

While the focus of cognitive theories on hypothetical constructs such as "theory of mind" are less useful, studies of typical and atypical development of imitation in autism is an important contribution of this approach. The methods employed in cognitive developmental research typically evaluate whether the imitation skills of children with autism are typical for their intellectual level. Thus, between-group designs are almost exclusively used by cognitive developmental researchers matching control and experimental groups on standardized test variable reflecting either verbal or non-verbal mental age. …

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