Echolalia is the process of repeating or imitating sounds, words or phrases, and is a normal part of speech and language development in young children. By repeating sounds and words they hear others say, children are able to grow and develop their own language skills. This helps them learn to talk!
However, at a certain age, persisting echolalia can be a sign that a child is having difficulty interpreting the meaning of language and/or finding the words to express their own unique ideas. These children typically require extra support to develop their communication skills.
What is echolalia?
There are 2 types of echolalia: immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia is when a child imitates what another person says, just after they say it. Delayed echolalia is when a child repeats a ‘script’ later on (Paul & Norbury, 2017). Delayed echolalia may look like a child repeating a line from their favourite TV show or movie, even though it is not currently playing.
Why is my child using echolalia?
The majority of the time when a child uses echolalia, it is an attempt to communicate. Children may use echolalia to (Lowry, 2018):
- ask for something (e.g., a child might say ‘Do you want an apple?’ when they are requesting a snack, because they have learnt to associate these wordswith receiving something to eat);
- gain attention (e.g., a child might say ‘It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!’ when asking you to look at something because they have seen this used in a similar way before);
- start a game or interaction (e.g., a child might say ‘Life is but a dream!’ to initiate singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” because that is the part where they usually chime in);
- to protest something (e.g., a child might say ‘Danger, don’t touch!’ to ask you not to touch their favourite toy because they have heard an adult say this in the past); or
- to answer yes (e.g., a child might repeat ‘Do you want some yoghurt?’ immediately after you have said it, as their own way of saying ‘yes’).
At other times, echolalia may not be an attempt to communicate – for example, if a child is playing alone and you hear them repeating lines from a video. In this situation, the child may instead be using echolalia to rehearse a situation or to soothe themselves.
Whether or not a child is using echolalia to communicate, persisting echolalia can be a sign of delayed language skills and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
How can I help my child with echolalia?
Parents working with a Speech Pathologist can assist their child to improve their language skills to reduce the occurrence of echolalia.
Whilst we can’t predict the outcomes of therapy (because every child is so different!) we can guarantee that you will see progress when your child is given the correct support.
- For younger children, or late talkers, the Speech Pathologist will teach you about language facilitation strategies that you can use at home to encourage your child to use their words. At this age children are learning about language all day everyday – so you will be their best teachers. The Speech Pathologist will check in with you regularly to find out how the language facilitation is going so far and to provide you with new strategies.
- For older children, echolalia may be the result of delayed language skills. If so, these underlying skills may first need to be explored using formal assessment (Clark, 2015). The Speech Pathologist will then be able to provide language or communication intervention tailored to your child’s needs with the goal of reducing their reliance on echolalia over time.
- For children with an autism diagnosis, the Speech Pathologist will begin by giving you strategies for understanding and interpreting your child’s communication attempts. They will also teach you how you can respond to your child’s echolalia in a positive way and support and enhance their communication in new ways at home.
In all cases, parents play an important role in supporting the language development of their child and make a big difference in the success of the therapy.
How can you support your child with echolalia?
While not replacing individualised therapy, there are few things you can do at home today to start supporting your child’s language development. When your child uses echolalia, try the following strategies (Lowry, 2018).
First, follow your child’s lead:
- Observe your child and their interests. Take note of what they are doing and where they are looking when they use echolalia.
- Listen carefully to what they say. What exactly is your child saying when they use echolalia? Are they echoing you word-for-word or do they change it? This will give you hints of what they are trying to communicate and how their communication is progressing over time.
- Wait, without talking. During interactions with your child, make sure you regularly wait and listen so that you don’t miss any subtle hints. This will increase the opportunities your child has to send you messages successfully.
Then, be an interpreter:
- Give them the language they don’t yet have. Once you have figured out the meaning behind your child’s use of echolalia, you are ready to translate their words into another language. You can say the message for them exactly as they might say it themselves or you can choose to describe it from your perspective. Either way, make sure you provide an exact model, using correct grammar, so they can learn from it for next time
To find out more about how we can support your child with echolalia, contact us today on 1300 086 280 or at [email protected] to book an initial consultation with a member of our team.
Clark, C. (2015). Echolalia: When Children Repeat What You Say. [online]. Speech And Language Kids. Available at: www.speechandlanguagekids.com [Accessed 30 June 2022].
Lowry, L. (2018). Helping Children Who Use Echolalia. The Hanen Centre.
Paul, R., & Norbury, C. (2017). Language disorders from infancy through adolescence (4th ed.). Elsevier.