Ability to Imitate is a Key Factor for Infants at Risk for Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have an impaired ability to imitate sounds and gestures. This behavior is one of the early signs of ASD, but has rarely been examined in children under the age of 24 months. “Examination of early developmental trajectories of imitation between 12 and 24 months, when imitation increases so dramatically in typical development, could illuminate the process of imitative development in ASD and could reveal important relationships with motor development, language, and other social behaviors,” said Gregory S. Young of the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (M.I.N.D.) Institute, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis and lead author of a recent study examining imitation in children at risk for ASD. “Thus, one of the primary aims of the current study was to collect prospective longitudinal data on imitation skills from 12 to 24 months in children who are later diagnosed with ASD at 36 months.”

Young acknowledged that children in general develop more proficient imitation skills as they mature. But for children with ASD, identifying at which age the impairments develop and progress arrests is vital for early diagnosis and treatment. Young examined 154 infants at increased risk for developing ASD and 78 control children. He studied their imitation skills between the ages of 12 and 24 months, and then assessed their development at 36 months. Young found that all the children developed similar imitation proficiency through the first year, but those who later developed ASD showed declines in imitation between 12 and 24 months. Young added, “The fact that the development of imitation was significantly related to language and social behavior over time, as well as the fact that children with autism exhibited delayed imitation ability as early as 12 months, suggests that future research aimed at measuring imitation and other socio-cognitive skills in even greater detail may help to illuminate important developmental dynamics in both the onset of autism as well as typical development in general.”

Young, Gregory S., Sally J. Rogers, Ted Hutman, Agata Rozga, Marian Sigman, and Sally Ozonoff. “Imitation from 12 to 24 Months in Autism and Typical Development: A Longitudinal Rasch Analysis.” Developmental Psychology 47.6 (2011): 1565-578. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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  • Shayne


    December 7th, 2011 at 5:33 PM

    Has there been anything that points to what happens around the age of 24 months that seems to bring on autism in some kids? Do researchers think that this is something that lies dormant until then or does it develop around that age?

  • adrian lawson

    adrian lawson

    December 8th, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    and nobody can monitor this better than parents.so important that they are aware of not only this but everything that comes with child development.no wonder parenting is tough.its not just a phase,its a whole new task-even needing knowing about so many things and its almost like preparing for an exam,isn’t it?

  • Julianna


    December 8th, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    The hard thing about all of this is that many parents do not pay attention to the developmental milestones that their child should be achieving. I know that may of them leave that up to the pediatrician, but the doctors do not see the kids everyday like the parents do. You know if there is something wrong with your child probably before anyone else doe, so bring that up with the doctors and take some preventive measures. It might not completely slow things down, but you never know how much difference early intervention could make.

  • JH


    December 9th, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    Its just so beautiful to watch toddlers to things like imitate you or something.And to say parents cannot even identify simple things like these would not be fair.I’m sure no parent would be that disinterested!For most people,its more about the ‘I hope its not’ thought that stops them from seeking consultation.

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