How Michael is Learning Basic Imitation

This week Michael mastered a program called Actions with Objects – this is a program with 15 different items, where he had to imitate the action that I performed with the item. It was one of the first programs that he ever did, and it is a massive achievement. My husband and I celebrated in the way that all parents of young children do – had lots of wine, and asleep by 9:30.

To all you people that think ‘so what, he can bang a drum after you bang a drum’ don’t say such things around me! Sure, your child probably started imitating you playing with toys when they were six months old. Think if they did not. Think how many things are involved in imitating even the simplest action!

  1. The child has to watch what you are doing
  2. He has to be at least interested enough to watch anything at all
  3. He has to sit still long enough to then reach across and do it himself
  4. He has to allow you to teach him how to do it, if it’s too difficult to do himself
  5. He has to notice that you banged those two blocks together, you did not drop them into the box. This means he has to discriminate between these two actions

Aren’t children amazing that they can do this? That newborns can copy the facial expressions of their parents? That they know what is important to imitate and what to ignore in the busy world around them? That they start learning from when they open their eyes in the morning to when they close them for sleep?

Children with autism often have trouble with imitation. It affects their ability to learn language, it affects their play skills, their ability to play with their peers and of course joint attention (sharing focus with someone else). Michael has many programs in place right now to teach him imitation but this was the very first one.

Eight months ago, when Michael started this program, I honestly thought the odds of him finishing it (ever) were roughly equal to the odds of my traveling to the moon. On a cow. While dancing on its back.

There seemed to be so many obstacles.

Firstly, he had no interest in watching what I was doing. When we started, Michael spent most of his time in a corner of the therapy room (the corner furthest from me) look at his fingers or pushing pieces of paper/blocks/puzzle pieces around on the floor behind himself. Getting his attention was practically impossible.

Secondly, he was not at all interested in learning anything. He wanted to watch his cartoons, eat his cookies, and look at his fingers. That’s it. My stupid drum banging filled him with the type of pitiless indifference that a cat feels towards all humans living in its house that are not currently feeding it.

Thirdly, he could not sit still at all. He ran backwards and forwards around the room, and would only ever stay still while standing and looking at his fingers in the corner. Sitting was totally out of the question.

Fourthly, he had no intention of allowing me to prompt him. I would hesitantly say ‘do this’ and bang a drum, then reach for his hand to teach him how to also do so. He would look at me like I had just made a horrible suggestion to him regarding dancing on the grave of his grandfather. Then he would rip his hand out and try to run off to the aforementioned opposite corner of the room.

Lastly, he seemed to have real trouble physically concentrating on a particular action happening in front of him. He would flicker his eyes every time he tried to concentrate on my actions – was I banging the drum this time, or shaking the maracas? I did everything slowly and I tried varying the distance from him in case he was short sighted or long sighted, but it seemed to be the action of concentrating on something, and of scanning a field (so looking at a number of objects at once) was just really hard for him.

Yet despite all of these obstacles, this is the program I will always love the most. His imitation skills are now so fantastic sometimes the entire thing feels like black magic. How did it work? How did he go from this, to being easily able to look at three different objects in front of him, and imitating the exact action I asked for, with the exact object I did it with? With me changing the objects and changing their positions every time? With fifteen objects? And he did it so easily you’d think he was imitating all his life!

When we started I thought ‘what can this achieve? If I get him to bang a drum over and over, alright he’ll learn how to bang a drum. How can you make someone that doesn’t understand the whole concept of imitation, suddenly do it, just through these endless drills?’

How silly of me.

Not only can he now bang a drum, he can imitate most things that I haven’t taught him, from the first time. The other day, I waved at him through the window when he came home from a walk, and he waved back! And then I clapped and jumped up and down like a crazy person, and he clapped too!!

I can see how this would seem totally unimpressive to a normal person, but normal is not located anywhere near us so my husband and I have been very overexcited about this burgeoning skill for a while. We can now teach him to play with toys! We can prompt him when he’s learning new words (try teaching ‘stamp feet’ to someone that can’t imitate. Yeah, I thought so).

I recently counted how many times we actually did an ‘actions with objects’ activity with Michael to get to this point. We did it for about eight months, which is 34 weeks. Six days a week, at least five times a day. So over 1000 times we did ‘Actions with Objects’ drills with my son. Well over 1000 times. Really and truly, actually 1000 times. With three zeros. It’s mind boggling.

Every time in the future, when I get bogged down in the sheer length of the journey ahead, I will think of that. Sure, I did it 1000 times, but now he can imitate! Imitation, it can be argued, is what makes us human. It is fundamentally linked to language, culture and any kind of empathy. A child learns to walk, talk, go to the toilet, and God-willing one day be the designated driver, through imitation – without it, you would have to reinvent it all by yourself from scratch.

Now Michael really has a shot! Go team Michael!

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