Observational Learning and Children with Autism

One of the main obstacles to learning that many children with autism face is a lack of observational learning skills. What is observational learning? It is learning that occurs without explicit teaching and by observing another person do something and simply doing what they do. Children with autism have difficulty learning by watching someone else and absorbing that information incidentally. For example, a typically developing child may look across the classroom and watch another child building a house using blocks. The next day at school this child may then build his or her own house using blocks without specifically being taught this task. This child simply watched another child, observed what the child was doing, was able to retain this information in his or her memory, and then accessed this information the next day in order to build a house. On the other hand, parents of typically developing children sometimes complain that their children are learning bad habits at school. This can also be observational learning at work. A child with autism may lack these imitation skills and so when they are in an environment filled with peers from which to learn, often times very little learning takes place. Opportunities for observational learning occur throughout the day and may contribute to a considerable amount of what we learn. Just think, was everything that you know explicitly taught to you? Chances are you answered “no”.

In an ABA program, one of the first skills taught to a child with autism is the skill of attending and imitating. Initially, this imitation might be as simple as imitating a handclap, or a wave. Over time, these imitation skills will expand so that the child can imitate complex behaviors such as how to watch a child from afar and build what they are building, how to play T-ball, how to draw pictures, or how to engage in self-care tasks such as brushing their teeth simply by watching, absorbing, and imitating. Imitation is one of the basic foundational skills needed for any child to be a successful learner. Therefore, there is much emphasis placed on imitation in ABA programs, particularly in the beginning stages of programs.