Does your child repeat yours or other’s words when spoken to, or repeat television shows, commercials, or sounds they hear in the environment? Verbal children with autism spectrum disorders tend to repeat words and phrases they hear with little understanding of the meaning behind the words—a “condition” known as Echolalia.
What is Echolalia?
Echolalia is the automatic repetition of the vocalization of others; in other words, repeating words, phrases, and sentences of others—often called “parroting” or “echoing.” The repetition can happen immediately after the words or sounds are heard, or they can be repeated at some time in the future—delayed echolalia. Children with hyperlexia also tend to be echolatic.
How is Echolalia Different from Hyperlexia?
Hyperlexia is an ability to read way above what is expected for the child’s age, and is accompanied by a below average ability to comprehend spoken language. Although, this child does often repeat words they have read, they fail to comprehend the context of their words. They are repeating what they read whereas the echolatic child is repeating what they have heard—as in echoing. In both instances, when the child is very young they have a limited ability, if any, to comprehend the words they are repeating.
Does He/She Understand What They Are Saying?
It may appear that your child is repeating words or sentences in the correct context, but often they do not fully comprehend the language, and/or social implications of what they say. However, it is a means of learning language through rote memorization, and often is an attempt to communicate. For example, when asked, “Do you want juice?” your child may answer, “Do you want juice?” with same intonation and reflection as your voice but as an affirmative answer to your question. They repeated the question, but to convey that they do indeed want juice. They also may repeat your question, and after a short delay, respond by saying, “Yes. I want juice?” Similarly, the child who hears “got milk?” on a television commercial may walk into the kitchen and say, “got milk?” in the same intonation and rhythm as the commercial opposed to asking you for a glass of milk. Or, when asked, “Do you want milk?” respond by saying, “got milk?”
Will They Ever Speak Normally?
The presence of echolalia in children with autism can be a good sign. They are processing language, albeit differently from the norm. These children are generally verbal and will continue developing more complex verbal skills. It is a part of the way they learn and develop language. It is not necessarily “abnormal” as it is a part of normal language development, but it may last longer than in normally developing children.
Will My Child Grow Out of Echolalia?
It is unlikely that an autistic child will grow out of echolalia; however, it can become less pronounced, and in many cases virtually unnoticeable. Adults with autism still display echolalia, which may or may not appear as a simple repeating of other’s words. They may unconsciously (under their breath) repeat verbal instructions given while performing a task. They may recite lines from favorite movies, or television shows—often appropriate to the situation at hand. Echolalia can even show up as unconsciously repeating or “mouthing”, without sound, words that you are reading. These readers are hearing their own voices read the words, and in essence repeating those sounds.
What Can I Do; Can Echolalia Be Cured?
There is no known “cure” for echolalia; however, there are some things that you can do to help your child hone their language skills. Stay calm and use consistent language. Be specific and direct in your speech, and use “yes” or “no” questions when possible. In the example regarding the juice, when you child answers you by repeating the question, you can say, “Yes, I want juice.” They will likely repeat, “Yes, I want juice” becoming accustomed to or “scripting” that answer. Be patient, be calm, and be persistent.
Echolalia, although not a diagnostic criteria of autism, commonly occurs in autistic children. The appearance or echolalia in a toddler is not a definitive indication of autism; echolalia can occur without your child having an autism spectrum disorder. If you have concerns, or suspect your child has echolalia, speak to your child’s doctor, or contact a speech pathologist who can help.