By: Emily Bess, M.A., CCC-SLP
Echolalia is the repetition of words, parts of words, or phrases either immediately after it was said or with a delay. Many children with autism, especially those who are just beginning to communicate verbally, will use echolalia as a way to participate in an interaction when they do not yet have the skills to come up with something to say on their own. Several important social and expressive language skills can be learned through using echolalia including turn taking, vocal inflection, and using longer utterances to communicate. Echolalia can also serve as time that a child is taking to fully process what was said. When a child is mainly echolalic, it can be confusing and frustrating to know exactly what to do and how to help them build off of that in order to become effective communicators.
One of the most frustrating exchanges involving echolalia is when a child repeats a question back instead of giving a response. It is possible to use these repetitions to help teach the question-answer format and improve upon this language skill.
It is always best to begin by using simple questions that have answers that do not change, i.e. ‘Where do fish live?’ ‘What is your name?’ ‘Who am I?’ etc. Immediately after the question is asked, give the answer. ‘Where do fish live? Water’ ‘What is your name? Emily’ Repeat the question and answer several times while emphasizing the answer for your child to repeat. The goal is for you to be able to ask only the question and your child respond with the answer, which they learned from being able to repeat it after you. Eventually, questions that have answers that change can be worked on, such as ‘How do you feel?’ ‘What do you want to eat?’ etc. These types of questions can really help make communication easier and prevent some meltdowns along the way. It may take time for this skill to be mastered but is a great way to start building toward your child being able to effectively answer questions when asked.
Another type of question that can be taught using echolalia is a yes/no question. It is once again best to begin by asking simple questions that have answers that do not change, i.e. ‘Is your name Emily? Yes’ ‘Is your shirt purple? Yes’ etc. I also like to use pictures of basic things I can find on Google and ask things such as ‘Is this a dog? Yes’ ‘Is the girl wearing a white shirt? Yes’ etc. I would advise beginning with only ‘yes’ questions in order to ease frustration. When teaching ‘no’ questions, try to make it something very silly, i.e. show a picture of a dog and ask if it is an elephant, ask if their name is a name that they have never heard before, etc. This type of question may also take some time but can be a blessing and prevent a lot of miscommunication when this skill can be mastered.
Avoid the Meltdowns
Adult: Do you want apples or oranges?
Adult: *Gives oranges*
A common situation among echolalic children can be a meltdown over confusion about choices being made. When presented with two or more choices, the child will often repeat the last option given no matter if that option is something they prefer or not. Thinking that is the choice they made, the adult will honor it and once the child recognizes that that’s what they’re getting, if it is not what they want, a meltdown will occur. Using pictures, holding out the items, or holding out two hands with each of them representing a potential choice could be helpful in making selections without having to say them verbally, and thus prevent a meltdown.
Since each child is different, the way that each child is communicating is also very different. All of the tips above are great points to start from when working with a child who uses a lot of echolalia. If any of the above is ringing true for you with your child, don’t hesitate to reach out to a speech-language pathologist to help make an individual plan to help your child effectively communicate.