While autistic toddlers can imitate, they may find it more difficult than their neurotypical peers.

The world is a new place for infants and toddlers, and they have much to learn. As they explore what’s around them and how they fit into their surroundings, they often look to others for guidance.

For neurotypical children, this generally involves copying the actions of their parents or caregivers. This may not be the case for an autistic child.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — commonly referred to as autism — is a developmental condition that affects one in 100 children. ASD presents in various ways and at varying levels of intensity. The needs and abilities of an autistic person can even change over time.

While different children experience the condition differently, they may share some traits, including the way they imitate others.

Imitation is the act of copying others. This can involve mimicking physical actions, facial expressions, sounds, or reactions. Non-autistic infants and toddlers tend to copy others naturally. An autistic child, however, is often less likely to imitate others on their own.

Young children rely on adults and older children in their lives to teach them how to explore and interact with the world. Imitation plays a large role in this.

Toddlers and young children generally copy or mirror the actions or behaviors of those around them. This can include how they handle objects, make gestures, or use different sounds or words.

Imitation is important in early development for many reasons. Not only does mimicry help infants and toddlers learn new things, but it can also help them:

  • build social skills
  • communicate with others
  • share their emotions
  • express their needs
  • pay attention to others

For neurotypical children (children who aren’t autistic), imitating others often comes fairly naturally. Autistic children, however, may find mirroring more challenging.

For many autistic children, mirroring others doesn’t come easily, and they often engage in imitation differently than non-autistic children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they may also have difficulty communicating, expressing emotions using facial expressions, and playing pretend.

An autistic child may show a lack of interest in the people around them, which means they’re unlikely to pick up on others’ actions or behaviors.

This could be a result of slower development. An older longitudinal study published in 2011 suggests autistic children develop mimicking skills at a slower pace than non-autistic children, particularly by age three.

This delay may help with early ASD detection, allowing parents and caregivers to start using support strategies sooner in their child’s life. These strategies may include:

  • guiding your child through copying exercises
  • incorporating imitation into play
  • watching videos that demonstrate simple actions with your child

It may also help to reverse roles with your child by copying their actions and behaviors.

Findings from a 2016 review suggest that imitating an autistic child can help them promote social engagement and become better communicators. It may also help increase their ability to play, maintain eye contact, and develop social skills.

There are many ways you can support your child. And there are many tools and resources you can turn to to get started.

You can promote and encourage imitation skills by:

  • playing games that involve copying sounds or movements
  • incorporating your child’s favorite toys into imitation activities
  • encouraging pretend play and imaginative exploration
  • imitating your child’s behaviors to help them learn how to mimic
  • using a mirror so that they can see themselves
  • providing guidance but not doing things for them
  • focusing on one thing at a time (a specific gesture, sound, or action)

The following resources may also help:

Imitation is a key part of development that helps children understand how to react to the world and build social and communication skills. While neurotypical children mimic others naturally, autistic children may need more guidance in picking up this skill.

As a parent or caregiver, you can help promote imitation skills for your autistic child in various ways.

This can include encouraging pretend play, using toys to demonstrate behaviors, or even mirroring your child’s actions back to them. You may also find it helpful to work with a speech or behavioral specialist.

While it may take extra time and effort, you can help your child develop the skills and behaviors they need to blossom into the best version of themselves and who they’re meant to become.