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Building a Bridge With Echolalia

Building a Bridge With Echolalia

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

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.

Echolalia is an interesting but commonly misunderstood behaviour. Most kids do it at some point, and autistic kids can continue with it for longer and even into adulthood. Many approaches seem to advocate finding ways to fix, control or eliminate the behaviour - but not only is this not in your kids' 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 is an important expressive outlet for kids who might be struggling with spoken language. 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.

Don't ignore it

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

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're 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

Echolalia is an awesome way to build a communication bridge between you and your kids. If you learn their 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!", try substituting the name when other 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

Give echolalic kids 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 is the enemy of choice making. When presented with a list of options, echolalic kids will often 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 - if they still choose the last option, use visual choices instead (put the options on the table in front of them or use picture exchange).

Don't confuse each other

Echolalic kids can be excellent mimics, copying the speech patterns and intonation so accurately that it sounds like natural speech. If you're not familiar with the source of the echo, you might not even be aware that it's being repeated. You think you're having a conversation, and so you continue at hilarious cross-purposes like Abbott and Costello until they get super shitty because you're not saying it correctly. So if they suddenly get agitated while you're chatting, backtrack and see if they might be scripting.


The bottom line

Echolalia can sometimes be frustrating, confusing and even annoying... but it doesn't have to be. As parents of kids who struggle to communicate, we're often hanging out for the day that we can understand each other. That day might be closer than you think.

This article was first published in September 2012.

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