I remember visiting a child at school once and when I tried to join in her play, she started to sing a theme song from a Disney film. When she finished, I tried to engage with her again by talking to her about what she was playing with to see if she would respond and well, she did, but it was more singing but this time a different song. So, I continued to sit alongside her talking to her about her play and she continued to echo lines from songs she knew.
I found this experience tricky as I didn’t know if she was engaging with me at all and it felt almost like a one-sided conversation as I wasn’t getting much back from her apart from lines from songs. I later realised that she did want to share her play with me but by singing songs she loves. She was communicating with me but in her own way.
One of the characteristics of early language development in children is when they imitate language they have heard being used in their environment. This can be called ‘parroting’, ‘echoing’ or, the more technical term, Echolalia.
The child with echolalia will process language in chunks of information rather than individual words. This involves them repeating what they have heard in conversations, books (read aloud), what they have heard on some sort of device (TV, tablet, mobile phone etc) or, in my nephew’s case, Alexa!
The child with echolalia might also have copied the same intonation and rhythm as the original language they heard. The language may sound very advanced, lengthy, and grown up for their age but often the child will not understand the meaning of what they are saying. And the good news is that research into echolalia suggests it contributes to the development of relationships and social-emotional attachments!
Children tend to grow out of Echolalia by the age of 30 months. Some children with language disorders might outgrow it at a later stage but some children with Autism or Tourette’s Syndrome might struggle to outgrow this stage.
TYPES OF ECHOLALIA
There are 2 main types of Echolalia:
Immediate: This is where the child will repeat something back they have just heard. For example, the adult says: “Do you want a banana?” and the child says: “Do you want a banana?”, instead of answering the question.
Delayed: This is where the child will repeat language they heard hours, days, weeks, months or even years ago.
ECHOLALIA AND AUTISM
Children with Autism often display echolalia and many parents have mentioned to me how concerned they are about this. However, for me I first focus on the positive fact that echolalia implies that the child can process language and it shows that they are on a language development journey.
Children with autism may sometimes repeat what you say to help them manage their anxiety and/or buy themselves more time to understand your message before responding to you. They will use it as a coping strategy in situations they may find difficult.
For example, a little boy I worked with loved Thomas Land (at Drayton Manor Park – my son was obsessed too!). At nursery, when someone new came to speak to him he would instantly talk about Thomas The Tank Engine and repeated language he had heard his parents use when he had visited Thomas Land. He loved Thomas The Tank Engine and when faced in a new situation that he struggled with, his echolalia helped him remember his happy feelings and so he would revert to talking about Thomas The Tank Engine to help him bring calm when he felt uneasy and usure about things.
Anyway, enough with the explanations Nergis, what can you do if your child is echolalic?
Here are 10 practical ideas to help you with your child with Echolalia
Encourage your child to initiate communication more than focusing on responding to questions and prompts. This can be done by helping your child to initiate interactions with different people, so they get to learn a variety of ways to start conversations.
Use a consistent style of language so your child finds it easier to understand you.
Keep facial expressions and gestures simple and clear.
Be specific and direct in your language so your child is not second-guessing what you mean thus causing them to misunderstand language.
Limit vocabulary you use so it is easier for them to understand you and if they do copy your language, they will be creating shorter sentences that they will be able to use more flexibly.
Avoid ambiguous language (e.g. sarcasm, metaphors, puns and idioms) as this can cause misunderstanding and lead to echolalia.
Break tasks down into simple manageable steps.
Give your child time to respond as it allows them time to process information and form a response.
Carefully observe and analyse your child’s echolalia. This is important to determine why your child might be saying those words.
Be a detective and try and find the source of the echolalic language. Ask yourself what was the situation in which the child had copied the language? What was the child doing at the time? How did they react to that situation? How do you think they felt at the time?.