CHICAGO - They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when it comes to teaching children with autism, it can be the difference between learning important social skills or being left out.
That's why Rush University is researching a special program for children with autism called "Mirror Me."
Candace Duarte and her 3-year-old son Mayor are part of a study at Rush University to determine the best way to use the internet and other technologies including telehealth to start early intervention in children with autism. It's called Mirror Me.
"I had a therapist who was kind and able to help me navigate through the lessons," Candace said. "And then as Mayor and I are playing, she's able to coach me virtually."
Mayor was diagnosed with autism at 15 months and started therapy shortly after. He's since been enrolled in the Mirror Me program. It teaches children with autism social and communication skills through play and engagement. Those are things that don't always come naturally.
Dr. Allison Wainer is the lead researcher and creator of the Mirror Me program. It focuses on comparing different learning formats to see which one works.
"Half of the parents get a website they work through on their own to learn the strategies and the other half get the same website but some additional remote coaching," Dr. Wainer said.
This type of learning is known as reciprocal imitation teaching or RIT. It teaches the parents to learn to imitate or copy what their child is doing so the child engages with the parent.
"Once the child recognizes the parent is part of that world then we teach the parent how to use those opportunities to actually teach the child a new skill," Dr. Wainer said.
That new skill can be a word or teaching that child how to play with a toy, maybe even sharing or taking turns.
For Candace and Mayor, being able to work on Mirror Me at home during the pandemic with virtual coaching was crucial.
"I think it’s helped us have a stronger connection, a stronger bond. I'm able to connect with him on a deeper level. I'm able to see the world through his eyes," Candace said.
The Mirror Me study has been going on for four years and they are looking for more families to take part. It's a 15-week program for children 16 months to 5-years-old and they have to meet certain criteria.
Any interested families are encouraged to reach out to Rush University Medicine at Rush.edu/mirror.