Like most things, the views on echolalia lie on a continuum. They range from considering its use non-functional, to tolerating it, to really accepting and celebrating it. We, as parents, caregivers, clinicians, and professionals, can facilitate further acceptance by understanding language learning differences, embracing echolalia, and educating others!
A Basic Overview
There have been two main types of language processing outlined (which are not mutually exclusive) that can help us conceptualize how children begin to understand and use language.
- Analytical Language Processing: Your child may use single words, followed by two-word combinations, and build up to phrases gradually.
- Gestalt Language Processing: Your child may assign meaning to whole phrases rather than single words at first. These phrases can be referred to as scripts, echolalia, or gestalts.
Echolalia, often associated with gestalt language processing, is the use of repeated words and phrases that your child has heard previously. The intonational pattern of these scripts often matches the original source. Echolalia can be described as immediate or delayed.
- Immediate echolalia: Your child may repeat all or a portion of what you just said (e.g. Do you want to go swimming? “Go swimming”).
- Delayed echolalia: Your child may repeat phrases they have heard in the past, such as those used by caregivers (e.g. “time for bath”) or lines from a song, book, or movie (e.g. “Fish Are Friends…Not Food”).
So, what does it mean?
Echolalia or scripting can serve a number of communicative and self-regulatory purposes, including: affirming, requesting, protesting, advocating, commenting, turn-taking, expressing emotions, gaining attention, initiating or maintaining a social interaction, labeling, narrating play, and more. Quoting a favorite movie line to a friend in conversation is an example of maintaining a social interaction via use of delayed echolalia. The frequent use of echolalia for the purposes outlined above is often associated with autism.
Doing Some Detective Work
The meaning and function behind the script may not always be obvious to the communication partner, especially if they are not familiar with your child. We want your child to be able to communicate with whoever, whenever, wherever! So, it is up to us to get curious and try our best to determine the purpose of the script. What did they choose to repeat and why?
A few additional questions to ask ourselves:
- Is there a strong emotion associated with this phrase? Example: Is the phrase from a really silly song, a scary part in a movie, or from a book that you always read together while very calm? Do they seem to repeat this when they are experiencing a specific emotion, physical state, or state of sensory regulation?
- What is your child telling us with their body language and facial expressions while they use the script? Example: Was your child repeating, “let’s go for a walk,” but looking really upset? Were they reaching for something or pushing something away?
- Where were they when they said it and what were they doing? Example: Were they playing with a sibling or with toys on their own? Do they say it when you visit a specific place?
The answers to these questions give us invaluable insight about your child’s communication skills. We can then start to show your child, through motivating play interactions, how to mitigate or change those scripts to express even more. For example, if the child in the photo above is familiar with the scripts in “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?,” we can narrate their experience using a familiar phrase, “I see a… pink tree… looking at me.” Additionally, we can teach new scripts to meet additional communication needs. We can think of echolalia as another valid and meaningful way to communicate that can be built upon and expanded.
Our Shared Goal
We know that therapy is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Your child’s speech therapist will work with you to determine what communication skills your child is using on their own and how to help them further develop those skills. We will work together to achieve our shared goal of helping your child communicate, advocate for themself, and have fun with language!
Questions or concerns?
If you have questions about your child’s language development, including the use of echolalia, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-332-9439.
Ana Burgoon, MS, CCC-SLP
Davis, K. G. (2017, May). Echoes of Language Development: 7 Facts About Echolalia for SLPs. In Leader Live.
Evans, K. (2022, February). Let’s give them something to gestalt about. In The Informed SLP. Retrieved from https://www.theinformedslp.com/review/let-s-give-them-something-to-gestalt-about.
Martin, B., & Carle, E. (1996). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? N.p.: Henry Holt and Co.
Stanton, A. (Director). (2003). Finding Nemo [Motion picture].