About seventy-five percent of children on the autism spectrum use echolalia in some form. Echolalia is the tendency to repeat back, or "echo" what someone else has said. It's also sometimes referred to as "parroting," because of the way that parrots mimic human speech. For some time it was thought that this echoing of speech by children on the spectrum was completely nonsensical. But we've now determined that there usually is the intent to communicate, but the delivery gets confused along the way.
There are two types of echolalia: immediate and delayed. With immediate echolalia, the child will repeat back exactly what was just said moments earlier. For example, if you asked the child, "Would you like juice or milk?" She might immediately reply, "Would you like juice or milk?" This is because she is drawing from her short-term memory resources to come up with the words she needs, instead of being able to formulate an answer for herself. You might compare it to trying to retrieve information from the wrong file in an office. Somehow, the neuro-pathway which should lead to the right "file" for speech is misdirected. (See my blog: "Brain Wiring: Understanding the Autistic Mind.")
Parents: Use the tendency to echo as a teaching tool.
When my son Kyle was in his early years of school, he often used immediate echolalia. If I asked, "Do you want to play outside?" He would reply, "Play outside?" I observed that Kyle usually used this kind of speech when he meant to say "Yes," or "I want that." Yet he would inflect his voice in the form of a question, exactly as I did. I knew that to an outsider, his intent would not have been understood. So I made many attempts to redirect his speech to help him answer correctly.
The method was to "play dumb," when he echoed--even though I knew what he meant-- and then provide him with two possibilities for answering correctly. For example, if Kyle answered, "Play outside?" I would make a confused look, then offer him two appropriate responses: "Yes, I want to go outside,' or 'No, I want to stay in.'" As I offered each choice, I either shook or nodded my head and pointed to outside or inside. Since he was already skilled at copying my speech, I was now modeling two possible correct answers, and he simply had to choose which one to echo. After many months of using this technique, Kyle's profound memory skills could take over, and he could recall what particular responses sounded like, and retrieve them from his "memory file." So often I have found that this is the key to dealing with autism. One must find new, creative routes or pathways to get to the same destination.
Delayed echolalia is when a child repeats phrases he has heard sometime in the past, like movie lines or song lyrics, at inappropriate times. Or, he might selectively have a few phrases he continually repeats throughout the day. In my opinion this is a comfort behavior, where the child is overwhelmed by sensory information and uses the repetitive speech to access the safe feeling attached to it. He might select a phrase that reminds him of something pleasurable, like a funny movie scene, and then repeats it to continue the happy feeling. This is an ongoing issue with Kyle. At thirteen, he will often randomly repeat lines from his favorite movies, like Shrek, Wallace and Grommit, or the Iron Giant. Sometimes as he paces the house or yard, I can hear him repeating his favorite lines. Other times he will approach me with a wide smile on his face, reciting the line to me happily.
Parents: Give meaning to what is being said.
What I try to do is make some sense out of the utterance, because most of the time it comes out of nowhere. I mean, it's a little unusual to be reading a novel and have your son approach you and say, "Ogres are like onions." Of course I know he's reciting a line from Shrek, but I try to give it meaning, by responding the way I would if anyone else had made the statement.
"Why are ogres like onions?"
Now this is an abstract question, which is hard for Kyle to answer. So instead he will say something slightly off course, like, "Because he's Shrek."
And I answer, "Oh...you're talking about the movie Shrek?" And he'll clap happily. "When does Shrek say 'ogres are like onions?'" And now we're having a discussion about Shrek, rather than Kyle just having a one-way meaningless conversation. Other times the family will be involved in an activity, and Kyle, who is happy about what we're doing, will access his "happy feelings" speech file, and a line from Wallace and Grommit will pop out. So I'll say, "Why are you talking about Wallace and Grommit? We're at the beach right now. Let's talk about the big waves." Often times I'm able to redirect him to more appropriate topics which are more related to what is going on around him.
Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who has been able to explain the disorder, said that her thought processes were like "thinking in pictures." In order for her to conceptualize the concept of "power," she had to envision a "power line." It can be tremendously puzzling for parents and teachers, but the brain of an autistic person is simply wired differently. Their abilities tend to be nonanalytic and nonabstract. They often have excellent rote memory for both visual and auditory information. It's no wonder children on the spectrum "echo" speech, because doing so involves rote memory and does not involve abstract thinking. Again, it's the way their brain is wired.
As parents of children on the autism spectrum, it's our challenge to find the alternate routes to language and learning.
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