What is echolalia?
Echolalia refers to speech that is repeated and can be split into two categories: immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia is when something is repeated immediately or shortly after it is heard, whereas delayed echolalia, also referred to as scripting, is when something is repeated after a significant period of delay.
Although echolalia is usually discussed in relation to autism, it can actually be a part of typical early language development. Children who remain in this stage of language development benefit from the support of speech and language therapists, and as their language skills improve, their use of echolalic speech will decrease.
Why does my child use echolalia and what can I do to support them?
Echolalia can be used to communicate any number of things, so it is up to us as adults to do a bit of detective work in order to figure out what our child is trying to say.
Another point to remember is that when children respond with echolalia, it is often because they have used it in a contextually-appropriate way in the past and received reinforcement from adults. Here are some examples with explanations and tips you can follow:
Example 1: To make choices
Adult: “More snacks or more water?”
Child: (while reaching for snack) “More snacks or more water.”
This is an example of immediate echolalia. Your child may be developing their understanding of names of items (i.e. ‘snacks’ and ‘water’) or ability to understand and make choices. By repeating what the adult says, they are demonstrating that they understand a response is required from them while trying to make sense of the information that they have been given.
In previous instances, your child may have responded in the abovementioned way and received the snack that they desired (i.e. the reinforcer). Therefore, they may have come to the understanding that this is a response that allows them to get what they wanted.
What can I do?
Modelling is one of the best tools we have! You can try to anticipate when your child will respond in this way and model an appropriate response before they begin the echolalic phrase. To make this easier for you, give one choice that you know your child definitely wants and another that they do not want.
Example 2: To make a request or start an interaction
Child: (trying to pull you towards a toy they want to play with) “Do you want to play.”
This is an example of delayed echolalia. Your child may be used to adults asking them this question when they show that they want to play, causing them to associate this question with the initiation of play. Although your child may not have phrased their request in the most accurate way, it is still important to note that by simply asking this question, they have already demonstrated an ability to make requests independently and interest in interacting with others!
What can I do?
Anticipate and model! When you notice that your child is interested in doing an activity with you, whether it be playing, eating, running, or sleeping, you can use the phrase ‘Let’s _____!’, e.g. ‘Let’s eat!’. By showing them that different actions can be paired with the word ‘let’s’ to indicate a desire to do it together, you are helping your child learn how to ‘build’ their own phrases instead of simply repeating sentences as complete chunks.
Example 3: To give themselves extra processing time
Adult: “Can you give me two toy cars?”
Child: “Can you give me two toy cars?” (pauses, then gives you the cars)
This is another example of immediate echolalia. Children often use immediate echolalia as a form of learning when they are still developing their understanding of language. In this example, you can see that the child is ‘rehearsing’ the information in their head before acting on it.
What can I do?
Wait! If your child needs a bit of extra time to process the information before carrying out the instruction, give them time to do this and then give specific verbal praise, e.g. ‘Good job, you gave me two cars!’. If your child repeats the instruction but has difficulty following it, you can use gestural prompts such as putting your hand out to indicate that you want to be given something, pointing at the cars to show what you want, and verbally counting two cars while tapping them. You can also model the correct response, i.e., follow the instruction, before giving your child another opportunity to try it. Avoid hand-over-hand prompts as this will encourage your child to rely completely on you to follow the instruction.