In my profession as a special educator, I always meet parents, anxiety written on their face and thousands of questions racing through their minds. I am a parent too, being the mother of an autistic child, I suddenly rewind back to those days, when I was on the opposite side.
Usually, the conversation would be like my two plus child knows 1-10, A-Z, knows some colours and shapes and yes, some fruits, vegetables and vehicles too. I would see a cute bundle of joy reciting all that the parents asks him/her to do with lots of coaxing. I then call the child’s name and simply tap the table at times or clap, only to find the child lost in his or her own world and not even aware of the actions I have done. No fault of the parent too, for our education system expects a child barely in his 3rd year of life rattle all this and at times write too in a play school.
So where do we start, what are the important prerequisites for learning? Have you seen moms looking at the face of an infant and making cooing sounds, lips all puckered up, or smiling and making different noises? In return the child also looks intently at the mother and trying to gurgle, coo and chuckle the way his mom tried. The child here is simply trying to imitate or respond to the actions of his mother. In other words, the child is simply trying to imitate. Imitation skills are one of the most important developmental milestones. It clearly shows that the child is environmentally present, he is aware of his surroundings and is responding to the stimulations he receives from them.
Imitation is the one of the first form of learning, and we all have learnt through imitation, be it our dressing style, our language so why should it be any different for our kids with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)? That is where we start from too. ABCD, numbers etc. are rote learned things. Rote memory is the strength of an ASD child.
Imitation does not come naturally to a child with ASD, it has to be taught as a skill. Imitation again has to be taught in steps. The natural protocol for development of any person is from gross motor muscles to fine(A child learns to sit or stand before he develops a pencil grip) So we teach our children imitation skills also accordingly. The child picks up gross motor imitation first like tapping a table, waving, or stomping feet. He will then move on to fine motor imitation e.g. thumbs up, touching index finger to thumb or middle finger to the thumb etc and then he learns oral motor imitation. This imitation skill is required to look at the speech therapist face and reproduce the sound or word with appropriate tongue movements, to copy the dance steps or action poems in school and later copying from the board. Imitation is one of the primary stages of cognitive development. It shows that the child is aware of his surrounding and is there with the parent/caregiver.
So, to teach imitation skills, sit across the table in front of your child, clearly say “do this” and do an action like tapping the table, clap, or waving bye, touching head etc. Remember not to give verbal clue like by saying “tap table” or “clap” for when you give such verbal clues you are actually doing a one-step instruction, not imitation. By saying “do this” you are encouraging the child to observe you and copy. If he is not able to do it gently guide him by giving him physical prompts, i.e. holding his hands and doing it. At times having another family member to first model the actions, helps the child to understand the concept much better. Reinforce the child with tangible and intangible rewards for every attempt to make learning faster and fun.
The same technique can be used for fine motor imitation like tapping index finger and thumb, and subsequently tapping the thumb and each finger one by one or holding the thumbs up, wiggle fingers, point to body parts etc.( again taking care not to name the body parts).
Oral motor imitation includes various tongue movements, and producing various vowels or consonant sounds etc.
Imitation of actions with objects e.g. imitating a building blocks designs you have made, for example if you have put a yellow and red blocks one over the other. The child should be able to make the same sequence when given the same set of coloured blocks. Another example, use a kitchen set and place a tea cup on a saucer or place the saucer on the tea cup giving a similar set to the child and give the prompt “do this”. You can do a variety of such actions with these play utensils. I am yet to see a child who doesn’t enjoy playing with the kitchen set I give. They invariably try to put the spoon in my cup or the saucer on my cup and I gently guide them. One can also use bubbles, it makes learning all the more fun and the squeals of laughter you get is priceless. Initially prompt the child if he is not able to do it and slowly fade the prompts
When your child imitates you, you have his full attention; he is present with you not lost in his own world. Remember if the imitates well, all other the skills would also fall into place automatically like a jigsaw.
So….. “do this”……
With Simmi Vasu