I can remember as kids my siblings and I would get into a lot of trouble when we imitated something an adult said or did. The grown-ups called it mocking or “copy-catting”. Regardless of the name, it was a no-no. From a child’s perspective, it was actually pretty funny… until we got caught. Babies tended to get away with it. In fact, the adults thought it was so cute they would keep repeating the same thing over and over, and encourage the baby to copy them. For us older kids however, the cuteness suddenly disappeared.
I can also remember a gentleman I watched on a television show, I can’t even begin to remember which one, but he had a special talent for being able to mimic what someone else said almost as fast as they were saying it. It would sometimes appear as though they were actually speaking in unison. The way that he mimicked them was quite entertaining.
When it comes to autism, people don’t tend to see mimicking as cute or entertaining. and you will hear terms like echolalia used to describe the behavior.
The simple definition of echolalia is “repetitive speech”. You can also think of it as copying or imitating the speech of others in an automatic, almost parrot-like repetition. Echolalia is another of the classic diagnostic cues for identifying autism, and for many years has been viewed as a developmental disorder in the area of language.
This is where I should tell you, there’s echolalia, and then there’s echolalia.
The first instance is actually a natural part of language acquisition for children. Note the scenario above with the adults interacting with the babies. We encourage our pre- and early-linguistic offspring to mimic and echo what they hear others say as a part of the learning process for mastering their own language skills and the art of communication. But, it’s like training wheels, and you aren’t expected to rely on this learning aid forever. You are expected to grow out of it as you master the next level of the desired skill.
The second instance occurs when you are past the age where children are expected to grow out of echolalia. When it stops being cute, so to speak. As with anything else, children progress at their own speed – in theory. Most children have outgrown using echolalia as a learning/communication tool by the time they reach 30 – 36 months of age, and have transitioned into the realm of self-generated language. So, we use that as a milestone marker. It is this second instance of echolalia that is considered problematic – when people engage in echolalic behaviors long after their third birthday.
Echolalia still plays a small role in Lia’s communication efforts. And she isn’t a baby anymore. Back in my pre-learn-as-much-as-I-can-about-autism days I didn’t see it as a problem. To be honest, I still don’t see it as a problem as much as it is a part of the space she occupies in her developmental progress at this point in time.
Because I was almost completely clueless when I started working with Lia, I thought it was “cute”. I didn’t realize she was actually working to master the nuances of the English language and developing her communication skills. Somehow, it morphed into a game that we played using words and sounds. In this game, one of us would initiate with a word, phrase, or sound, and the other would imitate it as closely as possible. The teacher in me pounced on this as an opportunity to teach her new words and to help her speak some of her slurred words more clearly so that any listener would understand her. I have found that with her macroglossia there are some words she will always have a degree of difficulty pronouncing, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. This game is a lot of fun for us and liberally interjected with laughter, clapping, and high fives.
I have noticed that Lia has a few “echoes” that will quite likely be a permanent part of her vocabulary with definitions of her own creation. One example is her use of “Bye-bye!” For her, it isn’t a simple farewell salutation as a visitor is leaving her home, there is a much more specific meaning in this brief communication.
When Lia says, “Bye-bye!” she looks directly at the recipient and her face takes on the sweetest, angelic demeanor. Her voice is a beautiful, pitch-perfect lilting tinkle that floats through the air and compels you to obey. The first time she said it to me I misunderstood and responded, “Aw! That’s so sweet, but it’s not time for me to go yet.” Her Dad just chuckled and said, “That means she’s done.”
Over time I learned that this echo means, “Your services are no longer required or desired, be gone.” Sometimes it’s not quite so strong and it means, “Can you please just give me a little space and quiet time.” And at other times it means, “OK, you’re intruding on my Mommy/Daddy/ other desired activity time and you should go.” Regardless of the context, the presentation is always the same. I’m not 100% sure, but I think she may have picked it up from a certain monster video she saw a few years ago.
In closing, I would like to share the links listed below. They are all quite informative and cover the topic of echolalia much more in-depth than I have here, and from multiple perspectives. You should really take a moment to read them:
Echolalia on the Spectrum: The Natural Path to Self-Generated Language – Marge Blanc, MA, CCC-SLP
ECHOLALIA: THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID – Musings of an Aspie
Echolalia………. What It Is and What It Means – Teach Me To Talk
As I researched the background information for this post, I was struck by the thought that on the one hand, echolalia can be something that is discouraged, and on the other hand it is taught as a communication tool for professionals. Do you remember learning about mirroring in Nursing school? Echolalia is a form of mirroring. Just saying.