It’s exciting when we hear our child’s first word. But not so exciting when we realize some of their words aren’t functional words that help them communicate with us. Echolalia is the official term that refers to this mimicking, or “echoing”. Defined as “meaningless repetition of another person’s spoken words,” echolalia can come in two main shapes and sizes:
1. Immediate Echolalia: This happens, as the term says, immediately. For example, if I asked my son “Would you like some juice?” and he repeats back “Would you like some juice?” Or if I say “Do you need help?” and he says “Do you need help?”
2. Delayed Echolalia: We might be sitting quietly and the child might repeat something he/she heard hours, days, weeks, months or years ago. I remember meeting a young boy that LOVED to watch the Price is Right. He would say, “You’re the next contestant on “The Price is Right!” when he would get excited about something. He would even go through calling someone up on stage, the whole sha-bang.
This can be frustrating and hard for parents to watch, but the first thing you should remember is: THEY’RE TRYING! They’re trying to talk, communicate and interact with you. So this is the silver lining with echolalia. Even though it’s a very challenging behavior to deal with as a parent and as a clinician, I alway look positively on echolalia because the child is trying to communicate and can form words and sometimes even sentences!
Okay, before I give you some strategies, please be sure to consult with a trained professional such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) provider or a Speech-Language Pathologist before trying this at home!
Some simple strategies to help with echolalia:
1. Ask less questions and say more from your child’s point of view:
Be very aware of what language you’re using with your child. Sometimes parents will ask questions without anticipating that their response will usually be an echo. Instead, try starting with the answer to your question. For example, if you would normally ask “Are you thirsty”, instead of asking, just hold up the juice box and give the answer to your question: say “Juice.” This will teach your child to echo the appropriate language for the scenario. The more you do this, you’ll be able to fade back your language and just say “Ju” or “J” and eventually he’ll be able to say “juice” in response to you holding up the juice box. By fading the prompt, you’ll start teaching your kiddo to request items independently. I love doing this with things the kiddo has already started reaching for because they’re just so motivated to speak independently! Provide the language you would want HIM to say in a scenario. If he doesn’t want something and is shaking his head, use his words for him and say “No” or “I don’t want it.”
2. Model his language for him:
I love reading books with kids who have echolalia because it’s such a wonderful place to teach them more language if they’re new to it. It’s a good way to point to photos of things like animals or foods and have the child repeat what you’re saying. A picture is worth a thousand words, so don’t forget to do this with objects in our environment too. If you’re looking at a book and saying “milk” make sure to do it with an ACTUAL glass of milk too. Books are great, but don’t forget the real world exists too!
3. Try not to over-communicate if it’s not needed:
Be careful with pairing his correct language with your response. If he starts saying “juice” independently, try to be careful not to say “here you go!” right after. He might start saying “Juice, here you go!” instead of the correct word independently. Just remember that handing him the juice is a reward in-itself, so you don’t need to add the verbal praise in addition.
4. Try to notice patterns:
If you read our previous blog post, you should be familiar with the different functions of behavior. Echolalia is often an automatic behavior, which means that the child might do it independent of whether you’re in the room or not, and sometimes it can be for no rhyme or reason. Sometimes it can be used to self-soothe or calm the child when they are not engaged in an activity. You might also want to take a look at when they are more or less likely to engage in echolalia and alter your environment to work with that. For example, if you notice that they echo more when they have idle time, you might want to try integrating more activities into their day. Try to see what type of support you can give them based on this before trying to eliminate the echolalia.