What is imitation and what difficulties do people with Autism and intellectual disability have in developing this skill?

The ARBIT Project works to improve some basic skills in people with autism, which are essential for the development of social skills, and therefore the full exercise of their rights.

Below, we detail a bit more about one of these skills, imitation. Specifically, we explain the difficulties suffered by people with autism in this area and its consequences.

What is it?

Imitation is doing what somebody else does.

But, imitation takes many forms, has many uses and generates different brain activations according to its different uses. That is why we have to specify: what, when, how to imitate.


  • WHEN?

Doing the same at the same time (Synchronic imitation): communication

Doing the same long after the observation of a novel action: learning.

  • WHAT?

Simple actions just need for the infant to be able to reach, grasp and hold an object.

Complex actions enchain a series of simple actions. They need a coordination of both hands and thus are more difficult to imitate.

  • HOW?

Imitating spontaneously is a voluntary signal of interest for the person or for the action, which should lead to social interaction and communication.

Imitating on request requires to leave one ‘s personal motives and adopt an external objective.

When does it develop?

Imitation develops immediately from birth on (for instance they protrude their tongue when you protrude yours) and becomes more and more complex with age (for example, at 9 months they press the same button to obtain the same sound, or they join their hands to clap like the other does).

The answer depends on which form of imitation you have in mind.

A newborn is able to imitate facial gestures and sound, at 2 months hand gestures, at 3 months, trajectory towards a part of the body and after 6 months simple actions (when grasping is mastered).

After 6 months, s/he will imitate for instance ‘grasp a spoon’. But is s/he able to turn the spoon inside a bowl? This action requests to enchain two simple actions: first to take the spoon, second to turn the spoon inside the bowl, the whole being possible if the infant coordinate both hands, one maintaining the bowl and the other turning. This will be possible after 14 months.

Enchaining many actions to perform a novel goal after observing without doing will take place much later, at 3 years.

What are the implications of this skill for a person's development?

Imitative behaviour allows people learn the typical use of certain objects, acquire new skills and obtain the necessary basis for the development of communication.

The importance of imitation in development is crucial. Indeed, imitation has been shown to contribute develop many functions among which self-recognition and body part recognition, communication without words, joint attention, empathy, self-other relationship, TOM, and learning via observation.

What difficulties do people with autism and intellectual disability have in developing this skill?

Many people with Autism and intellectual disability do not develop imitative behaviours at the evolutionary moment that it would be necessary. As a consequence, they have difficulties in other areas that are also basic for their development such as play skills, peer interaction or joint attention.