You are looking for the thing that has meaning for them, and you are using that to get access to their inner world and draw their attention to interaction rather than solitary self-starvation.

These are the words of Phoebe Caldwell, a renowned therapist, describing her work with people with autism. To communicate with nonverbal children and adults, and to develop their own ability to respond, she gives her attention to their repetitive actions, like rhythmic fidgeting, and she imitates them. Many of these actions are self-focused, separating Caldwell from the people she works with. For her patients, the restless repetitions are a means of grounding themselves in their bodies while their perceptions of the world remain chaotic. But as she imitates them, touching the hand they touch or flicking a string like them, they begin to recognize her in their own echoes. Their attention turns from themselves to a shared interaction as Caldwell creates an external feedback out of their repetition.

Caldwell emphasizes that her interactions must be un-self-conscious:

When we are doing this with a person, we are emptying ourselves; we are giving that person absolute, total attention. And when I say emptying myself, I still have to be there for them. I have to respond to them. It’s not a question of me being a mirror exactly; it’s of me being a living, responding person, whose attention is totally focused in that person when I’m working with them.

I thought this a beautiful and moving portrayal of selfless compassion. And strangely, “emptying ourselves” (kenosis, as they say) immediately reminded me of the so-called “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2. Funnily enough, it also involves imitation:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
     and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

Letting the mind of Christ* be in us is obviously a moral command. But Susan Eastman argues that Paul doesn’t primarily call for us to imitate Christ; he is showing that Christ first imitates us:

There’s a long tradition that says Christ is primarily an example to be imitated: ‘ethics’ in Paul is simply the imitation of Christ. This is what Kaesemann and others react against, rightly in my view. Exegetically, it ignores the fact that the ‘Christ-hymn’ is telling the story of Christ becoming like humanity, so that in the first instance, Christ is the one doing the ‘imitating.’ And conceptually, [this false view] presumes that imitation is located simply in human volition, as something that we choose to do, or not to do. Both Plato and contemporary neuroscience recognize that, as often as not, imitation bypasses volition; perception triggers a mimetic response. This is why Plato was worried about the potentially negative influence of the poets, and wanted to ban them from the republic. And this is what anyone who observes infants knows immediately. I’m interested in the role of imitation in reciprocally participatory relationships. In regard to Phil. 2, I’m interested in imitation as the link between Christology and ethics, but starting with Christ as the one becoming like us, and exploring the way our perception of this action of Christ involves a mimetic response that goes deeper than conscious decision. I see this is central to Paul’s participatory ethics: Paul presents Christ as mimetically participating in the human plight, such that his auditors respond to Christ mimetically. Such mimesis is deeply participatory, and is the basis of an ethics that involves the whole person in a communal way.

From this theological perspective, Caldwell’s imitation and self-emptying suddenly becomes more profound, even cosmic, since Christ himself has already done the same thing for us. In the outrageous words of Athanasius, “He was made man that we might be made God. He enters our disorienting life as one of us and draws us into his life. And we learn to imitate him not by our own effort but, in Athanasius’ passive voice, by God’s gentle action toward us first.

* Some theologians (e.g., von Balthasar) have written that kenosis, self-emptying, is the activity not only of the Son but of all the Persons of the Trinity one to another, as each submits to the other in the love that the whole Godhead is.