Anyone who has interacted with typically-developing young children knows the benefits of imitating their actions. When a child realizes that someone else copied what she just did, she might look at the person in surprise, laugh, and do the action again to see if the same result will occur. The skills that are being supported here are attention, social interaction, and communication, which are important to a child’s development.
Young children with autism have difficulty with social interactions, reciprocal communication, and joint attention. It has been observed that they also have undeveloped imitation skills. Sanefuji & Ohgami (2013) examined whether using a “being-imitated” strategy had developmental effects on the behavior of young children with autism. Their two-month study involved a home-based intervention in which mothers of the children were specifically instructed on how to interact with their children, depending on whether they were in the experimental or control group, for five minutes every day during object play. Mothers in the experimental group were instructed to imitate every one of their child’s behaviors, including all utterances and facial expressions. Mothers in the control group were instructed to immediately respond to their child’s behaviors but not with imitations. Behaviors that were measured included gaze toward mothers, imitation skills, and comprehension of the intentions of others’ actions.
The researchers found that the “being-imitated” strategy increased the children’s gaze interaction and imitation skills more than the control group strategy. When the children recognized they were being imitated, they imitated others, which is a social cognitive developmental task. The third behavior, comprehension of others’ intentions, was not observed in either group.
While Sanefuji & Ohgami (2013) did not include the use of music in their study, their findings have encouraging implications for music therapists as well as immediate caregivers. Positive results occurred in the social skills of the children in the experimental group while they were interacting with their mothers who, the researchers pointed out, did not have professional training. The researchers stated that caregivers “could play an important role in interventions for children with AD [autistic disorder]” (p. 76). The benefits of imitation demonstrated in this study could be generalized to other settings, such as music therapy. Musical imitations on instruments or through vocal sounds and singing are more ways in which children with autism can experience imitation. The “bidirectional flow between recognition of being imitated and imitation” (p. 76) that occurred in this study could occur in music therapy, and the music would provide another outlet for expression in these children. Music can hold attention and promote social interaction and communication without the use of words.
This study demonstrated the importance of imitation when interacting with children with autism as well as the importance of involving caregivers in treatment. Perhaps an additional implication for this study in regards to music therapy includes the benefits that could occur in children with autism when music therapists and caregivers team up to help promote social and communication skills.
Melissa Heffner, MT-BC
June 2015 Blog – COMT
Sanefuji, W., & Ohgami, H. (2013). “Being-imitated” strategy at home-based intervention for young children with autism. Infant Mental Health Journal, 34(1), 72-79.