What is echolalia?


 

The repetition – or echoing – of words, sounds, or full sentences is called echolalia.


Autistic kids may repeat the words, sounds and sentences from friends and family, as well as other people they spend a lot of time with, or they may repeat things they’ve heard on TV, YouTube, or other favorite streaming services. Echolalia is very common.


There are a few types of echolalia. Immediate echolalia is when a child repeats words immediately after hearing them; if they repeat the words later, that’s called delayed echolalia. Delayed echolalia may confuse people because the words come out and often out of context, seemingly from nowhere.


A neurotypical child learns language in this way: they first understand single words and use them alone, and eventually they put those single words together to make full sentences or coherent sentences.


Autistic kids, on the other hand, often learn language a different way. They hear and learn phrases in groups or chunks, unable to break down language into smaller pieces. In some cases, the sentences they’ve memorized are grammatically complex – and certainly much more complex than they could have imagined up by themselves – and they may not understand individual words within the sentence.


By teaching a child who uses echolalia break down longer, more complex groups of words, we can help them understand what each word means so they can use those single words in a more flexible way.


Why do autistic kids use echolalia?

 

According to the experts, there are three reasons why autistic kids might use echolalia in their speech.


It could be self-talk. When a child uses memorized phrases, it might be so they can talk themselves through difficult processes or a hard time. They may have heard their parents, teachers or caregivers calm them or soothe them in this way.


It could be prefabrication. When it’s too hard for the autistic child to form their own thoughts into words, the might use repeated phrases or sentences.


It could be self-stimulation. Stimming is a way for autistic kids to calm themselves when they’re overwhelmed, and echolalia may be a form of stimming.


Kids can use echolalia to communicate – they may use echolalia to request something, like a toy or a favorite food; to interact with someone; to protest; to answer yes; or to draw someone’s attention to something.


How do we model language to a child who is echolalic?

 

There are a few ways we can model language for the autistic, echolalic child.


One, we can use simple language that makes sense in a number of situations when echoed. “Time for dinner!” can be used in place of “Would you like some dinner?”


If your child doesn’t yet answer questions, avoid asking questions. Again, “It’s toothbrushing time!” works better than “Have you brushed your teeth?”


Pronouns can be confusing to some kids, so try to use names instead of pronouns. “She” could be anyone; use Sarah or Joanne or Mom instead.


Model short phrases, even if your child can speak and understand longer, more complicated sentences. Guide them toward learning the meaning of each single, simple word.

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