What is the Imitation Method of Teaching?

One of the ‘core deficit’ areas in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are underdeveloped or poor imitation skills. After delays in language development, imitation delays are often one of the red flags that cue parents to seek an evaluation. Imitation deficits make it difficult for children with autism to learn from others and to learn through natural activities like play. Therefore, studies have shown that targeted interventions, including the imitation method of teaching, that focus on remedying imitation delays can be highly effective in alleviating the symptoms of ASD (Cardon and Wilcox, 2011; Ingersoll, 2008; Vismara and Rogers, 2010).

What is the imitation method of teaching? 

Child and human development experts suggest that imitation is one of the most important ways we learn new information. Imitation, or copying another’s behavior, begins in infancy and continues throughout the lifespan. The imitation method of teaching focuses on breaking apart skills into components, providing the learner with a model of the target behavior, and rewarding the learner for demonstrating the response immediately after the model. When a learner develops a foundation of simple imitation skills, then those skills are combined into more complex skills.

Why is teaching imitation to develop new skills important? 

Children with autism benefit from imitation training, precisely because it helps remedy some of the significant barriers to learning. It is possible to acquire most skills through imitation, and it’s considered a natural way that children learn. Building a foundation of imitation goes beyond teaching a specific skill. It’s teaching a child how to learn.

Advantages of Using Imitation 

Multiple studies have shown clear advantages of imitation training, including many of the following benefits:

–      It helps build a foundation for new skills. As mentioned above, imitation training works in a building block method. Imitation of simple skills gets taught first. Then these imitations are combined to teach more sophisticated, advanced skills. Focusing on what the child already knows as a foundation approaches learning in a positive way rather than just emphasizing deficits.

–      The imitation method makes learning quick and efficient.  Imitation training doesn’t rely on lengthy explanations, lots of written instructions, or allowing a child to decide when to demonstrate a skill. 

Instead, imitation training breaks a child’s learning apart into more efficient interactions. The teacher demonstrates the specific skill. If the learner demonstrates the skill, the teacher provides positive consequences for performing the skill correctly. If the learner does not display the skill, the teacher provides a prompt to help bring out the skill in a learner, instead of taking the ‘wait and see’ approach. Imitation training helps quickly and efficiently address skills deficits because it goes right to the targeted skill and focuses the learning there.

–      Imitation benefits learners of all ages.  The value of imitation across the lifespan doesn’t ever really diminish. Strong imitation skills help school-aged children learn the routines of a new classroom just as much as they help adults learning the routines when starting a new job. Spending the time to teach a solid imitation repertoire to a child with autism means providing a foundation he or she will use for life.

Disadvantages of Imitation Training

Although most autism practitioners and researchers place a high value on the imitation method of teaching, it may not be the best fit for all learners. Some parents and autism advocates raise concerns that teaching a child to imitate others will ‘diminish their inner person’ or ‘make them act like a robot.’ In reality, all children use imitation to learn new things. Instead, parents and practitioners should work together to provide children with opportunities for creative expression outside of imitation training. 

Another disadvantage or critique some parents note about imitation training is that “it didn’t work for my kid” or “it took us a long time to get my child to imitate.”‘ Ultimately, not all children with autism respond to imitation teaching. In some cases, children lack the pre-requisite skills for successful imitation training and need pre-teaching first. The pre-requisite skills for imitation include looking at the instructor to observe the model, some muscle coordination and strength, and responsiveness positive reinforcement. In most cases, though–especially in young children with autism–these pre-requisite skills can be taught before or along with beginning imitation training.

Some Examples of Imitation for Younger Learners

So, what types of skills might the imitation method teach? In very young learners or children with limited imitation skills, skills begin at a fundamental level. Some examples include:

–      Gross Motor Imitation – Skills that focus on imitating the body movements of an instructor. 

May consist of imitation targets like bending over to touch his toes, marching in place, or putting arms out to the sides.

–      Imitating Sounds and Words – Skills that focus on mimicking the vocal speech of an instructor. 

May include imitation of sounds like “ooo” or “bah” or simple words like “mama” and “wow.”  

–      Imitation with Simple Play Objects – Requesting a beginning learner to imitate simple play tasks like pushing a car down a ramp, shaking a maraca, or putting a spoon to the mouth of a baby doll.

Some Examples of Imitation for Advanced Learners

Once learners master the skills above, the imitation method of teaching then combines the skills into more complex language and social skills. Some examples include:

–      Imitating longer phrases or ‘tongue twisters’ 

–      Fine Motor Imitation – Skills that focus on finer movements, often with the hands or fingers. May consist of targets like putting small objects in a bottle, moving the tongue side to side, or holding a pencil with the correct grip.

–      Social Observational Learning – Skills that focus on watching peers in natural social activities. May include targets like learning a new game on the playground, using slang, or colloquial speech.  

–      Delayed Imitation – Skills that focus on the learner watching a model of behavior, and then demonstrating that action after time has passed, sometimes up to weeks or months later.

If you have questions about the imitation method of teaching or would like to know if a child may benefit, contact a behavior analyst or autism professional for information and an evaluation. 


Cardon, T. A., & Wilcox, M. J. (2011). Promoting imitation in young children with autism: A comparison of reciprocal imitation training and video modeling. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders41(5), 654-666.

Ingersoll, B. (2008). The Social Role of Imitation in Autism: Implications for the Treatment of Imitation Deficits. Infants & Young Children, 21(2), 107–119.

Vismara, L. A., & Rogers, S. J. (2010). Behavioral treatments in autism spectrum disorder: what do we know?. Annual review of clinical psychology6, 447-468.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

March 2020

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