Me: How are you?
Child: How are you? I’m fine, thank you. And you?
Me: Have you finished your work?
Child: Have you finished your work? Yes
Have you experienced this before? Quite a number of children living with autism echo people talking to them. This behavior is called ECHOLALIA
Echolalia, as the name suggests, means “echoing” someone or repeating what has been heard. It is a behavior that is quite common among children on the autism spectrum. The child may repeat a sentence said to him, or echo words that he heard before, maybe from the television. You can see a child reciting, word for word, conversations from a movie. Sometimes, you can hear a child saying things like “good job. (Name) is a good boy/girl” or “don’t do that! That is naughty”, and you know the child is just reciting what he/she has been told before.
Echolalia is not exclusive to autism. Although it can be displayed by children with other disorders, it is usually the way children pick up speech; some neurotypical (NT) children (regular children) learn to speak by echoing. Research says that children will usually echo other people’s words till they are about age 3, that is when they confidently use their own words. So in a way, echolalia is good because it means the child is gaining speech.
Echolalia can be immediate (the child echoes the speaker immediately) or delayed (the child echoes the speaker minutes, hours, days, months, or even years after hearing the words). Sometimes the child will repeat something you don’t want him/her to. I remember working with a boy who would come into group class and start calling the names of the other pupils, saying it’s your turn. He used to use the same tone, pitch, and accent as his teacher used. Amazingly this little boy, who was 5 at the time, did not have his own words; he could only say words other people around him had said. Many of these children are like that. Some will even use echoed words appropriately, maybe as response to a question or to make a request.
Although echolalia cannot easily be treated in children with autism, we know that as the child’s language develops, echolalia is expected to reduce. To help a child with echolalia; model words and sentences exactly how you want the echolalic child to say it. I believe that is the most important way to treat echolalia. It definitely sounds easier than it really is, but it is a sacrifice that is worth making. To build vocabulary, you can label pictures or objects for your child. You can name pictures in story books; let him/her touch the pictures and say the words. Playing and labeling toys and objects are good too. It is important to teach functional words; words that your child needs to express himself in requesting for a need, or to express joy or displeasure. While teaching your child to say “yes” or “I want…” teach your child also to say “no” or “I don’t want”. You don’t want your child saying yes when he/she wants to say no.
Introducing an augmentative form of communication (AAC; pictures or sign language) can also help to build vocabulary for your child. It is important to work with your child’s speech therapist on the appropriate AAC to use for your child.
Some years ago, while working with an echolalic boy, we taught him words and sentences to communicate his needs. We also introduced sign language to augment his speech. In a short while, his speech improved. Although he still echoes, mostly words from cartoons and Barney and friends, he communicates his needs very well and his speech keeps improving.
I read that Temple Grandin in an interview was asked about how she grew to become as “remarkably verbal” as she is now, considering that when she was younger, she was called a “tape recorder” because she used to echo words and phrases. Temple answered and said “Well, what happens is…as I get more and more phrases on the hard drive, I can recombine them in different ways, and then it’s less tape-recorder like…it’s gradual learning…you gradually just keep getting better and better and better.”
So if your child is echoing everything, be grateful that he/she is talking, be patient with him/her, and keep working to help improve speech. God bless you.
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