Does your child constantly repeat words or phrases? Will your child say a phrase or line from a show in a conversation that has nothing to do with that show?
This is Echolalia. Echolalia is basically repetition of speech. Almost all children with autism have experienced echolalia.
So why do children with autism repeat speech? That’s a good question. Children with autism usually are not able to communicate effectively because they struggle to express their own thoughts. Instead of answering a basic question, a child may simply repeat the question. Echolalia is a form of communication for children with autism. Through echolalia, they are learning and practicing language.
Echolalia is a very common part of language development, especially for children with developmental delays. You might even see children resort to echolalia more when they are dysregulated (stressed, anxious, or scared.)
As parents, what do we do? How can we stop the repetitive speech? I have a confession. I used to always tell my son to “stop” doing his shows, or “quit” talking about that! Or I might even interrupt him and say, “we’re not talking about that!” I tried to eliminate the behavior. Why? Well, honestly it drove me crazy!! But here’s the truth, echolalia can actually be used as a learning strategy. It’s a way to cope or regulate one’s self.
We know that children with autism struggle with communication, but they manage to have an extremely good memory. This is how they learn language, by hearing it and repeating it back. The repeated language may be immediate or delayed.
Over time the echoing or repeated speech will lessen as the child develops. The echoing may also change. My son used to always repeat SpongeBob episodes in its entirety. Now he just randomly repeated skits from YouTube shows that he enjoys.
How can you help? One way is to simplify your language. Instead of a long, drawn out sentence, divide it into segments or chunks. For example, I might say “You need to go upstairs and take a shower and brush your teeth.” My son might just repeat the entire sentence and not really respond. So in turn, I can break down the sentence and say, “Go upstairs. Shower. Brush your teeth.” I will also point upstairs as I talk to him.
You can also use pictures or written words instead of relying on spoken words all the time. The child can understand this quickly and the need for echolalia is not presented.
You could also have your child (older child) write down what they want or need. This is a good strategy to improve language.
While I think it’s important not to eliminate or discourage the use of echolalia, it’s equally important for parents to help their children with autism to use more creative uses of language.
If you have any tips on creative uses of language, please share with us!