Consider Imitation

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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.

Encourage Imitation

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.

Imitation Predicts

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.


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Deepen Your Understanding

Imitation gets a bad press: we know it is the sincerest form of flattery, and of course for effective education the learner must be able to copy the teacher, but on the whole, ‘imitation’ is linked to shallow, cheap and even fraudulent behaviour. It comes as a shock to discover that, as far as we know, most non-human animals are unable to imitate [1]: is imitation, after all, rather clever?

In everyday human life, imitation is remarkably prevalent: babies imitate the facial movements of adults within minutes of birth [2]; lovers find themselves unconsciously mirroring the other’s posture, and sycophants do the same with the stance and mannerisms of the powerful [3]; when you copy a friend’s wave in a dense crowd it shows them immediately you’ve seen them; and even the most inarticulate mechanic can show us what to do to fix our car’s engine. Imitation certainly comes naturally to humans.

The idea that imitation is a special faculty, critical in child development and perhaps a central aspect of human uniqueness, has gained ground in psychology over recent years [4, 5]. The discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ [6, 7] — cells in the premotor area of the brain that are activated by a hand performing a simple goal-directed action and respond equally whether the hand is one’s own or another person’s — offers hope of understanding the neural basis of this important ability. Confusingly, though, these neurons were discovered in the brains of monkeys — and monkeys are thought unable to imitate [8]. What is going on?

To find out, it is useful to distinguish two kinds of imitation, social mirroring, and learning by copying, each of which seems to function for a different purpose [9]. To improve our car maintenance, we need to augment our skill repertoire by assembling new programmes of behaviour — the function is skill acquisition. For imitation to help this process, our brain must be able to decode the behaviour of the expert mechanic and then re-synthesize it for ourselves, using as building blocks simpler components that we can perform already [10].

Learning by copying therefore requires powerful perceptual-cognitive processes to decompose complex behaviour, along with the ability to build up new skills from simpler components. But social mirroring may in principle be achieved by much simpler cognitive processes, because it does not require anything new to be learnt [11]. (Smiling or tongue-protrusion may be ‘new’ in a technical sense, for a baby so young that it has had little time to explore its small behavioural repertoire, but no learning is involved. Those actions come naturally, as they are in the baby’s latent repertoire.)

Several forms of imitation seem best understood as social mirroring, those cases in which the function seems to be some form of empathy or mutual identification. In each, imitation shows the other that one is ‘in tune’ with them, whether the other is the mother of a new-born baby, a lover or boss, or just a friend out of shouting range. Social mirroring is based on matching the current behaviour of another with similar-looking actions of one’s own: and mutual identification requires synchrony, not creativity. The starting point for mirroring is therefore to be able to recognize when another is doing something that the self can also do. This sort of generalization, of course, is just what mirror neurons achieve; so, a monkey should surely be able to recognize when another’s behaviour is like its own. Until now, it has been a puzzle that the scarcity of monkey imitation suggested otherwise.

Annika Paukner and her colleagues [12] have now resolved this anomaly by empirically separating imitation recognition from imitation itself, and found that monkeys can indeed recognize when another’s behaviour matches their own. In their experiment, two humans performed actions in synchrony with a monkey’s own. Both humans and monkey manipulated similar small cubes with hands and mouth. However, one person copied the precise actions the monkey was doing at the time, whereas the other performed other actions — just as monkey-like behaviour, but not the precise actions the subject was using at that time. Monkeys consistently preferred to look at the person who was imitating them, except when they were mouthing the cube — perhaps because they were then unable to see clearly what the humans were doing.

Richard Byrne at