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 attended the AEIOU* at Moorooka in Brisbane 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.

My son used echolalia when he was younger. If we asked him a question he would immediately repeat the words.

Dad would say: ‘Hello Michael, how are you?’

Response from Michael: ‘Hello Michael, how are you?’

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 11 and appears most of the time to speak like other children his age. 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 (like in the paediatrician’s office) he will mumble and whisper while looking down at his feet, maybe flapping his hands a little. 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 his latest obsession.

But if Michael is calm, relaxed and in a happy environment his speech normalises and he is just like any other boy. Sometimes in the morning when I am still trying to wake up, I can hear Michael and his younger sister chatting away happily together about something they love (like  the latest tablet game) and he is at ease and speaking fluently in a completely typical manner.

Now that makes me smile 🙂

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* The AEIOU Foundation is an intensive early intervention organisation in Queensland for children 3-6 years old. They now have numerous centres throughout the State.

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12 thoughts on “Echolalia: The Autism Files

    1. Thanks Selma 🙂 He has a heart of gold that boy (most of the time – haha – sometimes he gets angry and writes notes on pieces of paper and sticks them on his door like ‘I hate mummy, she is really scary and horrible’ 😉 – but that’s fine, we all ‘hate’ our parents when we get in trouble as kids – most keep the thought in their heads though).

    1. It would be terrible – there was one little boy that I remember – beautiful boy with blond hair and really sweet and not agressive at all – he has never spoken, even up to today – but he can write fluently on the computer and is highly intelligent – he typed once that he really wished he could talk 😦

  1. I LOVE this, Gabrielle, thank you so much for writing it. Maddie has traditionally comforted herself with Neville Chamberlain’s address to the country on the outbreak of war in Britain, and passages from Hamlet, and so on…. She told me she has different passages for different moods, even happy ones. She doesn’t always know she’s doing it: when her school went to the V&A they marched her past one of her favourite galleries and she automatically slipped into echolalia; her partner couldn’t understand what she was doing and asked her about it. When I heard about the incident we resolved to go back and see the forbidden gallery 😀

    1. Wow, that’s amazing Kate – quality echolalia that is 😉 Hamlet and Chamberlain’s address 🙂 So glad you liked my post. As you would know ‘stress’ is related to good things also – there’s good and bad stress, but it has an equal effect on the body – same feelings of heart rate increasing, anticipation, hyper vigilance, sweaty hands, churning stomach, hyperventilating etc., depending on the individual – therefore, the reaction of echolalia while a person is experiencing good stress can be bought on by experiencing of the bodily symptoms associated with anxiety and an agitated nervous system – a pairing would occur much like the pairing that occurs with addictive behaviours and stress (eg., person reaches for a cigaretter when stressed).

        1. Speechies are great for young kids and ours was an ASD expert – she actually focussed more on managing challenging behaviours than the speech, though she did many sessions with Michael alone playing games which helped him with his prosody, volume control, tracking etc., For the older aspie I think one of the real keys is the management of anxiety and a psychologist would be useful or even a relaxation centre that can help with stuff like breath control, massage, meditation etc.,

    1. That is very kind of you to say Graham – I have to set aside a block of time to focus on my ASD material – still a lot of sections missing if I want to be comprehensive, or another option is to do a memoir style book – it will happen one day 😉 Thanks for your support Graham.

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