October 31, 2012

What Moe Can Do: Imitate

Moe is a smart kid. He's a problem solver: if he sees something he wants, he will figure out how to get it. He does best at concrete tasks where expectations are clear. He can learn. We know this. But for the longest time, Moe was unable to do something most parents take for granted: imitate.

Imitation is one of the fundamental building blocks for learning. Typical children imitate their parents when they play. They imitate other kids to learn social interaction. They imitate speech sounds to learn to speak, and often will closely watch the way a speaker's mouth moves so they can move the same way.

For this reason, many ABA programs including our own spend a lot of time on developing imitation skills. And not long ago something "clicked" for Moe. He is now able to imitiate physical actions. In fact, his go to response right now if he's unsure of what you are asking him to do, is to imitate you.

We are excited about this development! It shows that skills, like imitation, that come to many children naturally can be taught. I have no doubt that Moe had to reach some level of brain development to get here as well, but this skill certainly has come only since we started working the one on one home program with him this summer. He imitates play with toys like dolls, farm animals and cars, as well as gross and fine motor movements.

Surprisingly, Moe's fine motor imitation is much more accurate than his gross motor. A request to put his arms up may not make it all the way over his head, for example. This is likely do to motor planning and proprioceptive difficulties (understanding where his body is in space). Moe is able to distinguish one arm versus two arm actions and sometimes will even discriminate left and right (though we aren't asking him to do this specifically).

This is still done in a highly directed environment. I do not think Moe always understands why or what he is imitating, but he knows he should do it and is motivated to do so. If imitation truly is the foundation for other learning, it gives me hope that he will learn more advanced and abstract skills as well, though certainly in his own time. In particular, basic imitation is a foundation for learning to speak, and indeed Moe is trying to imitate some speech, though his apraxia (difficulties with motor planning) does get in the way.

This is one of the reasons our ABA provider is so insistent on making sure Moe makes eye contact before we fulfill a request. It isn't that we want Moe to be able to look us in the eye for social purposes, but rather that we hope conditioning facial awareness will help him imitate the motor movements for speech.

I know a lot of this conditioning type of ABA can be controversial among autistics themselves. Even words like "conditioning" can make people bristle. Moe seems to do well with this repetitive type of learning, but it certainly may not be for everyone. Let me also be clear that this is not about trying to get Moe to act "normal" or otherwise hide his autism. It is about helping him gain the skills he needs to be able to learn.

I would be interested in hearing from autistic people themselves if they have thoughts on teaching imitation to teach learning other skills. Is imitation something you work on? Or do you learn in a completely different way?

This is the second in the series about the new skills Moe has gained. Click for the first piece, Play iPad.


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