By Anne Russell Bramlett, MS, CCC/SLP
Many of our children on the autism spectrum use echolalia, which is the repetition of another’s speech that occurs either immediately, or even later, after the original production. According to Barry Prizant (1987) echolalia is characteristic of least 85% of children with autism who acquire speech. In the past, it was sometimes suggested that this verbal behavior should be extinguished since it appeared non-meaningful. However, many now think that echolalia does serve a purpose for the individual with autism. It communicates to us certain things about how they may be feeling or what they may be trying to say. Many of us have experienced our child saying, “Do you want a cookie?”, when they wanted a cookie. They were echoing our past question that related to a desired outcome. Instead of ignoring this, we might want to think about how we can shape this behavior into a more typical communication.
Here are some thoughts and ideas taken from a chapter in Kathleen Ann Quill’s excellent book, Teaching Children with Autism. The chapter, co-authored by Patrick J. Rydell and Barry M. Prizant, is titled, Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children Who Use Echolalia.
Modification of environment – “echolalia increases in highly challenging environments that cause confusion or disorganization, thus competing with a child’s use of communicative acts”. “Transitions, interruptions in routine, unstructured time may all increase echolalia, especially when the child is unable to anticipate or predict the behavior and expectations of others or their role in the activity.”
Simplified language input – “Echolalia is more likely to be produced when the child does not understand preceding utterances.” Language input must be consistent with child’s language comprehension (not always as high as verbal expression).
Use a facilitative style as opposed to a directive style – expanding on a child’s utterance, commenting, asking questions about what the child is doing puts less of a “cognitive, social and linguistic demand” on a child than directives, “wh” questions, yes/no type questions do. When there is an increase in echolalia, this might signal a need to change the style for a while and model some of the more “directive” type utterances. Also using picture or written cues might help when a child seems overloaded.
Modeling – Model utterances relevant to activities and objects you are working with. Phrases should be at or only slightly higher in linguistic complexity and length than the child’s present ability, thus increasing the likelihood that the phrase will be understood and used appropriately. It is also good to model from the child’s perspective, “I’m thirsty”, while getting a drink, instead of “Are you thirsty?”
Through understanding a little more about echolalia and some common strategies to use when it occurs communication partners will have ideas of how to use this unique characteristic of ASD as a means of increasing appropriate, meaningful verbal expression.