Johnny is repeating words out of context that he has heard someone else say some time ago. The adult near him thinks, “Oh, he’s just ‘scripting’” and then turns to Johnny and says, “Johnny, you have to use your words.” But what if Johnny doesn’t have adequate words to use? It’s like if you were stranded in Mexico with only limited knowledge of Spanish that you learned for only two years of high school. You would have to rely on ‘catch phrases’ that you’ve heard before, especially for emergency purposes like, “Where’s the bathroom?” and, “I need a doctor.” Though you never alter their form, these catch phrases are survival tools that get you through life.
Johnny was employing “echolalia,” which is the repetition or “echo” of the exact phrases someone else has spoken. Also referred to as “scripting” (like an actor’s memorized lines), some people with autism utilize echolalia as a fixed part of their verbal communication. Two main types of echolalia are immediate echolalia, which is produced immediately following the heard model, or delayed echolalia, produced some time after the heard model.
Echolalia is even sometimes called “parroting”– an action similar to that of a parrot which simply repeats whatever it hears without understanding or having communicative intent. In stark contrast, people with autism utilize echolalia because they DO want to engage in meaningful social interactions but do not have the necessary language skills.
Professionals and parents may be quick to dismiss or ignore echolalia due to sentiments of inappropriateness. However, research has established that echolalia is relevant to language development and communicative interactions. The following are examples and suggestions of how to respond to echolalia which create more productive communication:
A student with autism and very limited language skills is asked by her teacher who is holding up two crayons, “Do you want red or blue?” Unable to understand that she needs to make a choice by saying “I want the blue one”, she grabs at the blue crayon while immediately echoing, “Do you want red or blue?”
Because certain language constructions are beyond the comprehension of some people with autism, it is necessary to provide more simplistic linguistic forms which can be built upon gradually over time. At first, use limited-to-no language when presenting a choice to the student. Hold up both crayons without saying anything, or just give a command to “Color the picture.” For whichever crayon the student reaches, state her preference—“You want the blue crayon.”
A child is hungry and wants to initiate a request to eat, but he is not sure how to make a statement. Yet, he is accustomed to his mother and other adults initiating questions towards him. So, he echoes, “Do you want to eat lunch now?”
Avoid direct questioning in everyday communication because this especially hinders the child from initiating his own statements. Rather than asking him, “Do you want to eat lunch now?”, substitute a variety statements such as, “Let’s eat lunch now” or “It’s time for lunch now” or “I want to eat lunch now.” In this way, the child hears various forms of how to make comments within the environment. If he chooses to use echolalia, it will be correctly produced as a statement, and he will build a repertoire of many statements from which to choose.
A boy with autism is laughing along with his little brother who has managed to curl up into an empty dresser drawer lying on the floor. Echoing a script from his favorite episode of Sesame Street, the boy cracks up while saying, “That’s just one piece of spaghetti! You call this lunch?”
The boy found this event really funny and wanted to let his little brother know it, but he didn’t know how to manipulate his words. Keeping the fidelity of his emotions, an adult can supply and model the corresponding language directed towards the little brother like, “Oh my goodness! You are soooo funny in that drawer!” or “Silly boy! Only clothes go in the dresser drawer, not people!”
A popular TV commercial with its repeated and hypnotic message, “Are you in good hands?” An adult man living at home would repeatedly echo this, even reproducing the deep tone of voice used on the commercial, at various points throughout the day. His parents learned from his therapists and teachers to refer to this as ‘stimming’ or self-stimulation. It was indeed self-stimulation, but simply demanding that he stop saying it or ignoring it is not only unfair but also not totally possible.
Self-stimulation tends to occur when anyone, with or without autism, is bored and doesn’t know what to do or think about at the moment. Unless the person is by himself while performing this action (where anyone naturally has the right to say and think whatever one likes), this type of echolalia can sometimes mean that he needs his time to be occupied more productively or with more stimuli. Stimulate his thoughts by moving toward a more gratifying joint activity like working together on a favorite puzzle while asking provocative questions like, “Where do you think this piece fits?” and soliciting his help through gripping emotional comments like, “UGH! I’m SO confused about where this missing piece is!”
Echolalia, used by people with autism regardless of age, serves a variety of communicative purposes which is usually to maintain social contact with others when language skills are not adequate. Misinterpreting these attempts can be detrimental to the linguistic, social, and emotional well-being of the person with autism. When you notice your child using echolalia, try to identify the reason behind it so that you can shape his or her communication, and both of you can enjoy a richer experience.
*Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavioral Analysis instructor. For over 20 years, Karen has been helping people with autism improve their communication abilities. In 2015, she launched “I Can Have Conversations With You!™”, a life-changing social language therapy system for the iPad to help people with autism make sense of words, gestures, and feelings to have confident conversations while building stronger social relationships. Learn more at iCanForAutism and follow her on her I Can Have Conversations with You Facebook Page.