A parent asks: We’re just learning about echolalia and find it fascinating. Our child has always done it, and we call it parroting. How do you think children with autism match an appropriate phrase to the situation so quickly and smoothly? What kinds of things did you employ to try to stop your child from using echolalia?
Ellen answers: Echolalia is fascinating. Once understood, you’ll be able to view it as an admirable step on a child’s road to conversational competence. Many children with autism, my own included, are stunningly clever in their appropriate use of delayed echolalia. They’ve identified a personal strength—the ability to memorize large blocks of dialogue or text, and to search those “files” and instantaneously retrieve relevant passages. They then employ this strength to compensate for a deficit—expressive language skills not yet developed enough to formulate the instantaneous original response expected of them. In that context, echolalia is the marvelous accomplishment of a brain that processes language in a particular way, and it is the gateway to learning originate the expressive speech required for conversation. At one point, my son’s delayed echolalia constituted the bulk of his speech, and though virtually 100% appropriate, I was still desperate to stop it. Luckily for me, our district autism specialist was a speech therapist who advised me that echolalia is a form of functional speech, and that trying to stop a child’s echolalia without utilizing it as a stepping stone—trying to go around it rather than through it—would be an exercise in frustration as well as a lost learning tool. She was right. In time, my son’s original expressive language increased to near normal levels. Today, as a young adult, he still employs occasional delayed echolalia, although it’s unlikely that anyone other than his parents and brother would recognize it. A speech therapist well versed in autism is a parent’s best ally in helping a child move through echolalia.
© 2015 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
Adapted from Ellen’s 2011 interview with Summit Series for Families. Read the full interview at http://www.summitseriesforfamilies.com/an-interview-with-ellen-notbohm/