If you are considering a more robust way to communicate, look at a person’s imitation skills. Imitation skills can help us make some decisions about the direction to go. Speech? Signs? Pictures? AAC?
Not all imitation is equal.
Some people have trouble copying any movements – big or small. See motor planning. Some people can copy large body movements. Others can copy tiny, intricate movements with their hands. Still, others can copy sounds and sound sequences. Some people copy cartoons and videos but not people in front of them. The quality of the imitation matters.
If a person doesn’t imitate, we can encourage copying. First, we can copy what they are doing. Over and over again. Then, add a new movement to imitate. We can incorporate activities and objects that motivate the person. We can connect and urge them to imitate. We can use touch cues to provide a motor plan. Repetition is key.
If the person has some imitation ability, capitalize on it. Use imitation as a foundation for more sustained interactions. Shape useful skills through copying. Figure out what kinds of cues inspire imitation.
Discrete trial teaching of imitation with the phrase “do this” does not do it. We don’t get the social benefits we need for authentic communication. We need to teach imitation in the context of social engagement. When we strip away the mutual enjoyment, we impede connection.
Mirroring is a form of imitation. Mirroring is when one person subconsciously imitates another person. We can imitate the gesture, speech pattern, or attitude of another. Adolescents do this all the time. They “try on” different actions, vocal patterns, and habits. The ability to mimic another person’s actions can be helpful. It allows a person to establish a sense of empathy. The imitator begins to understand another person’s emotions.
One of the predictors of future speech is the ability to imitate. We typically begin learning our first language by imitating our caregivers. In fact, a baby sees and hears speech for a whole year. It takes a long time for them to start talking. Long before the first word, an infant begins to repeat sounds. Their repetitions become increasingly complex as their motor skills grow. Their imitation is a critical building block for more complex communication. Reciprocal imitation between caregiver and infant is an early form of conversation.