Follow my leader


How the power of imitation can help parents connect with their child with autism

If you have a young child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may find it difficult to join in with the child when s/he is playing, or to catch his/her attention when you want to show your child something. However, when you follow the child’s lead, by imitating or copying his/her behaviour, you will discover an easy way to connect and get the child to notice you.

If you ever played the game “follow my leader” as a child, you will remember that one person is the leader, and the others follow along, copying whatever the leader does. You can do the same thing with your child at home, copying his/her actions, movements and sounds.

Why copy your child?

There are many advantages to imitating young children with ASD:

  • your child chooses the activity
    As you imitate something that your child is already doing, s/he is naturally motivated by that toy or activity. Children are more likely to interact when they pick the activity themselves
  • you and your child share the same focus
    When you are both doing the same thing, it is easier for your child to pay attention to both you and the activity
  • it helps your child notice you and look at you
    When you do exactly the same thing that your child does, it encourages the child to look at what you are doing. Studies have shown that when children with ASD are imitated, they look at the adult more than if the adult plays with them without imitating1,2
  • it promotes other social skills
    Besides encouraging children to look at the person imitating them, children with ASD have also been observed to vocalise, smile, play, sit closer, and touch the adult imitating them2
  • it encourages your child to lead
    When your child notices that you are copying him/her, it might encourage him/her to perform new actions or try new things in an attempt to get you to copy him/her again
  • it encourages your child to imitate you
    Imitating others is a particular area of difficulty for children with ASD3. The ability to imitate is linked to other skills such as language, and it also helps children learn through observing others4. Therefore, helping your child to imitate you is an important goal. When you imitate your child, s/he may notice what you are doing and start to imitate you back.

How to imitate your child

Imitating your child involves letting go of the lead, which means not telling your child what to do or trying to get him/her to do something else. Your child is the leader in this copycat game. Before you imitate your child, you need to:

  • observe your child – watch him/her closely and notice his/her actions, movements, facial expression and sounds.

Once you have noticed what your child is doing, copy what s/he does:

  • imitate his/her actions, movements, or sounds – if your child taps on the table, you tap on the table. If s/he jumps up and down, you do that too. If s/he beats on a drum, grab a drumstick and beat the drum too. Copy any sounds your child makes during these activities so that you do exactly what your child does.

After you have copied your child, you need to:

  • wait for your child’s reaction – your child may not notice you the first time. If s/he does not, copy him/her again. Alternatively, your child may look at you or do the action again. If this is the case, keep copying him/her. You will eventually get a back-and-forth game of copycat going, when it becomes difficult to tell who is imitating who.

It makes it easier if you have doubles of toys/objects. Some children get upset if you take their toy when it is your turn to imitate. By having your own identical toy or object, your child is less likely to get upset.

You might also want to try to imitate your child in front of a mirror. Many children enjoy looking at themselves in the mirror. If you imitate the facial expressions, movements and sounds your child makes while s/he looks in the mirror, s/he is likely to notice you.

During moments when it seems difficult to get your child’s attention or interact with him/her, imitation can be very helpful. It is a very simple way to help your child notice you, look at you, and interact with you. So let go of the lead and let your child be the leader. By playing copycat, you and your child can interact and have fun, and at the same time your child will learn some valuable social skills.


1: Sanefuji, W. and Ohgami, H. (2011). Imitative behaviors facilitate communicative gaze in children with autism. Infant Mental Health Journal, 32, (134–142).
2: Field, T., Field, T., Sanders, C., Nadel, J. (2001). Children with Autism Display more Social Behaviors after Repeated Imitation Sessions. Autism, 5(3), 317-323.
3: Rogers, S. J., Hepburn, S. L., Stackhouse, T., and Wehner, E. (2003). Imitation performance in toddlers with autism and those with other developmental disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 763-781.
4: Ledford, J. and Wolery, M. (2011). Teaching Imitation to Young Children With Disabilities: A Review of the Literature. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 30 (4), 245-255.

Further information

Lauren Lowry is a Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Clinical Staff Writer at The Hanen Centre, Toronto, Canada. The Centre offers a range of programs and resources for parents and professionals to help all preschool children, including those with ASD, develop language, social and literacy skills:

Lauren Lowry
Author: Lauren Lowry

+ posts


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here