Echolalia: The Autism Files


Children with autism have a lot of problems with communication.

Some children with autism can’t speak at all. When my son Michael attended the AEIOU*  many of the children could not speak. Some children will grow up and never speak a word their whole lives. They may learn how to communicate their needs with sign language, picture-exchange systems (PECs)  or assistive communication devices (e.g., computers that speak).

Some children with autism have language delays but develop speech as they grow older. Some children repeat words and phrases (TV commercials, movie scripts, parental commands) in a parrot-like fashion, with no real understanding of the meaning. This is called echolalia.

Michael used echolalia when he was younger. If we asked him a question he would immediately repeat the words. He had no understanding of what the words meant but he knew a response was required, so he would oblige us with our own words.

Like many children with autism he would watch his favourite videos (e.g., Nemo, Spot the Dog, The Wiggles) over and over again.  He would repeat large slabs of the story verbatim, to himself, when he was stressed.

Michael would repeat entire story books after I’d read them to him once or twice. He memorised every Hairy Maclary story book and he would ‘read’ the books aloud to himself while turning the pages at the correct spots. He couldn’t read at that age – he wasn’t even looking at the words. I don’t know how he did it!  This uncanny ability disappeared as he developed comprehension of speech.

As Michael got older and began to understand what the words meant he would use phrases from movies in the correct context when asked a question. Clever boy! If you hadn’t watched the movie you would never have picked up on what he was doing.  If you listened carefully you could tell he was exactly repeating a phrase from some show that he’d watched. He would use the correct accents and intonations. He is a great mimic.

When Michael was 3 he didn’t know how to call me mummy and maybe he didn’t know that was my name. I had heard him use the word as part of a repetitive script from some show but he never called out ‘mummy’ if he wanted something from me. He would just cry with frustration when his needs weren’t met. I became a mind reader.

One great day when he was 3 and a quarter he called me mummy.

Funny story:  We were at an indoor playground one day and Michael was calling out to me ‘mummy’. Then he noticed that some of the other children were using the word mummy. He was surprised, but had the solution, he called me ‘Gabrielle’. I explained that other kids also used the word mummy. It is very confusing if you think about it. Lucky he went back to calling me mummy as I was just getting used to it.

Michael is now 9 and appears most of the time to speak like other children his age (he can read at the level of a 10 year old). This would not have been possible without the help he has received from speech pathologists (thanks particularly to Leith Johnston).

He still has some communication issues. He still has difficulty processing speech and it helps if people slow down and speak clearly to him. When he is stressed or nervous he will mumble and whisper while looking down at his feet. He has difficulty with the reciprocity of speech  – the ability to take turns and share in conversation. He tends to speak about his special interests and he will interrupt conversations to ask questions about the solar system. But if Michael is calm, relaxed and in a happy environment his speech normalises and he is just like any other boy.

* AEIOU is an intensive early intervention centre in Queensland for children 3-6 years old

16 thoughts on “Echolalia: The Autism Files

  1. These posts are just fascinating to me, Gabrielle. They are amazingly well written too. It is like being there and hearing you comment on the situation at the same time, funny and wise. You are a fabulous writer and an extraordinary person.

    • Thank you so much Paul. I’ve been talking about autism to anybody that will listen now for over 5 years so I guess that comes through in the writing. I just want people to understand a bit about what it is like to have autism. Then maybe they’ll think twice before judging them and putting them in the too hard basket.

  2. I agree with Paul, and he says it better than I could.
    These posts on autism are very interesting, specially for people like me not in contact with it.
    What I find so interesting is that we are all trying to communicate, it is such a subtle knowledge to acquire that some people never get it.

    • Yes I agree. By reading about autism I have come to appreciate how truly amazing the human brain is and it is not surprising sometimes the brain adapts or is created differently. It would be most improbable if all humans experienced the world in the same way given the very subjective nature of the world and how our senses interact with that world.

    • Thanks Squirrel. I do seem to have a strange insight into people’s behaviour. I think I just watch and listen very carefully, especially body language. It drives people nuts that I can predict what they are going to do. When 2 yo Michael went to a special education unit the teachers said ‘you know your son so well’, I was surprised and said ‘don’t all mothers know their children’ and they just shook their heads.

  3. It is amazing what is possible with the help of a speech pathologist. A close friend of mine has a son with autism and I have to say that I can only dream of being as intelligent as he is. His scientific knowledge is unbelievable. I’m talking university level at 11 years old. I love just listening to him wax lyrical on his favourite subjects. Your post reminded me of him!

  4. Your story is beautiful…I have an Autistic daughter who is 14. Born deaf and later diagnosed @ 9 with autism… I love to read others stories, It’s amazing to see how much they relate to mine. It reminds me that I am not alone. Your observations made me chuckle because It’s all so familiar. Our children are truly talented. When Taylor was 2 she was delayed and still learning to walk, however she was “reading” the phone book. She would then write the alphabet on a chalk board and repeat writing her favorite letter “X” over and over again. I could sit for hours and watch her.

    • I am so glad you liked it Sonya, and commented. The stories are often familiar aren’t they. Reading the phone book at 2 – not delayed at all really, at least intellectually. They say Einstein couldn’t talk till he was 5 – maybe he just couldn’t be bothered speaking.

  5. What a fascinating post. Michael sounds like a remarkable little boy, and it must be an amazing journey to walk life’s path with him, learning more all the time about his unique perspective on the world. What a wonderful mummy you are. 🙂

    • It is an amazing journey and never boring. As a mother I’m like that little girl who ‘when she was good She was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid.’But that’s OK as I’m yet to meet the perfect mother or father. Thanks TL

  6. Keep these posts coming Gabe. Seriously, and I mean seriously, you should consider writing a book about your experiences. The world could do with more authentic literature about ASD. Thanks again for sharing,

    • Thanks Graham. I’ve thought about it but there is a war going on in the autism field (which I may blog about one day) and I’m not that keen to be a casualty – depends what angle I came from I suppose.

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