Building Bridges With Echolalia

The key to understanding echolalia is to recognise that it’s not meaningless, purposeless or mindless repetition. It’s communication.

Happy girl communicating with caregiver by touching her lips

In part one of this post we looked at lots of possible functions for echolalia, now let’s see how you can use it as a powerful tool for helping you to connect with your kids or students.

Echolalia is an interesting but commonly misunderstood behaviour. It can be part of typical speech development, so most kids do it at some point but autistic children can continue with it for longer and even into adulthood.

Many approaches to supporting echolalia seem to be about finding ways to fix, control or eliminate the behaviour, but not only is this not in the person’s best interests, it’s missing out on a wonderful opportunity to connect with them.

How can you help?

Don’t stop it

Being able to repeat speech and sounds can be an important expressive outlet for people who find spoken language difficult. Taking that away deprives them of the chance to communicate their emotions, calm themselves, get the hang of conversation, practice making sounds and reduce the anxiety involved with communicating verbally.

Understand it

Figuring out why a certain set of sounds are being repeated can be a challenge, especially if they don’t make any sense to you. The trick is to look beyond the words – listen to the tone, cadence and rhythm of what is being said. That might give you a better clue as to the source of the echo, which in turn will give you more context to work with. Also pay attention to the accompanying behaviour – if they seem overexcited then they might be using echolalia to calm down, if they’re engaged with you and enjoying themselves then they might be filling in conversational gaps.

Join in

It’s easy to tune out to words that don’t make any sense to you (or phrases you’ve heard a zillion times), but in doing so you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to acknowledge attempts to communicate. Even if they’re just having fun, isn’t that something you want to be a part of?

Echolalia is an awesome way to build a communication bridge. If you learn the person’s favourite scripts, you can start to participate in back and forth ‘conversations’ with them. Start slowly to test the waters – for some you might be interrupting and ruining the fun, but others might be delighted at finally being understood and getting a chance to connect with you on their terms.

Shape it

By slowly changing out words in a memorised phrase or script, you can help build up a lexicon of new words, show how words can be mixed and matched, and help phrases generalise across contexts. So if your son likes to say “Daddy is home! Daddy is home!”, you can try substituting other names when people come to visit. “Nanna is home! Nanna is home!” Eventually that can be extended to “Nanna is here!” or “Jacob is outside!”

Add to it

Make sure kids get to learn plenty of new responses that they can add to their memory file of phrases to choose from. As you hand them a drink, say “I would like a drink”. If they like to say “and then Percy raced ALL the way home!” when they’re excited, you can say “This is fun!” Once you understand the reasons behind the repeated phrase, you can help them to find a more functional way to communicate that message so that others can understand them too.

Be careful with choices

Immediate echolalia makes choice making very difficult. When presented with a list of options, someone who is echolalic will sometimes just repeat the last one and mistakenly give the impression that it’s the one that they want.  This can be very frustrating for them, as you hand them something that they never actually asked for. You can avoid this by presenting the choices again in a different order or using visual choices instead (put the options on the table in front of them or use picture exchange).

Don’t confuse each other

Some people can copy the speech patterns and intonation of an echo so accurately that it sounds like natural speech. If you’re not familiar with the source of the script, you might not even be aware that it’s a repeated phrase. You think you’re having a conversation, and so you continue at cross-purposes like Abbott and Costello which is really frustrating for both participants. So if the person you’re talking with suddenly get agitated while you’re chatting, backtrack and see if they might be scripting.

The bottom line

Echolalia can sometimes be frustrating or confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a wonderful tool for building a communication bridge.

Last updated 22 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.