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Here’s What Speech Therapists Recommend to Support Children Who Echo Speech

By Fraser Speech-Language Pathologist and Site Manager Valerie Olheiser and Fraser Speech Mentor and Speech-Language Pathologist Jacque Holman • speech development, speech milestones, echolalia, kids who repeat speech, kids who use scripts, kids who repeat words, children who repeat speech, echolalia and kids, autism and speech, autism and speech delays, autism and echolalia, kids and speech, children speech milestones, kids and talking, children speech, children speech development, kid speech development, kids speech milestones, learning to talk, speech language therapy, speech therapy, language therapy • April 27, 2023

In everyday life, your child is constantly learning about language. A child listens to their sister sing along to their favorite song on the radio. They listen when you FaceTime with your best friend. They hear dialogue while their brother watches “Encanto” for the 100th time.

Learning to communicate is an important part of a child’s development, but learning to talk doesn’t necessarily look one way or take a linear path.

How do children learn language?

There are two styles of language development. Analytic language development is what most people think of when imagining children learning to talk. Children first learn a few words, then they combine those into two-word phrases, and then the child builds more and more complex sentences. 

Gestalt language processing is when children learn language in chunks. First, they may repeat words or phrases immediately after hearing these phrases. Next, they learn to use these phrases appropriately and modify the phrase to fit the context. Finally, gestalt processors learn to isolate and combine words to form new, flexible phrases and then sentences. Fraser Speech-Language Pathologist and Site Manager Valerie Olheiser says that when kids learn language, they may rely on analytic development, gestalt processing or both styles of learning. 

What is echolalia?

Gestalt language processing is common in children with autism, as is echolalia. Echolalia is a type of delayed gestalt language processing. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) states, “Echolalia is the repetition of utterances produced by others.” Olheiser defines echolalia as when a child “echoes” noises, words, phrases or scripts from things they’ve heard.

In the past, echolalia was considered meaningless, but experts now understand echolalia is a form of communication. In the book “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism” world-renowned autism scholar Dr. Barry Prizant writes, “Children with autism struggle with communication, but they tend to have a very strong memory. So they learn language by hearing it and repeating it back, either immediately or with some delay. As the child continues to grow socially, cognitively, linguistically, she begins to discern the rules of language, but she does so, in part, through the use of echolalia, breaking down the memorized chunks of speech.”

An individual may sing a song to make a request, comment, ask a question, seek comfort or share information. While you may be initially unclear what your child with echolalia means when they sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” they are trying to communicate with you.

“Don’t try to get rid of echolalia! We want to instill confidence in all communicators. Once children see that their language is acknowledged and accepted, they’re more likely to engage with others and will have more opportunities to practice and develop language,” says Jacque Holman, Fraser Speech Mentor and Speech-Language Pathologist.

Here are some strategies to build meaningful communication through echolalia

  1. Become a detective. Try to figure out the meaning of the child’s echolalia. For example, your child may say, “Are you ok?” to mean “I’m hurt” because that’s what others say to him. Echolalia is often tied to strong emotional experiences. Try listening to the emotion rather than the literal meaning of the phrase.
  2. Acknowledge all communication. If you can figure out the intent of what your child is saying, acknowledge it, and then model a more conventional way to say it.
  3. If you’re unsure what your child is communicating, simply repeating the phrase back can increase interaction and engagement.
  4. Try to eliminate or reduce questioning as a form of interaction. Instead, comment and narrate what you’re doing for your child. For example, when getting ready for bed, say, “I’m going to brush my teeth. Then I’m going to wash my face. Next, I’ll put on my pajamas. Now it’s time to get under the covers and turn off the lights.”
  5. When modeling language, use a variety of word combinations and sentences in various forms of speech. Try requesting things, “Can you share your ice cream with me;” make comments, “That dog is very furry” and greet people, “Hello, Mr. Mailman.”
  6. Do things your child enjoys doing and talk about the activity. A child is more likely to pick up your language modeling when they’re engaged and interested.
  7. Many echolalic learners have an ear and talent for music. Incorporate music and songs into your daily routines. Teach your child that language is flexible by changing lyrics to songs they know. For example, sing Old McDonald had a jungle, and in that jungle, he had a monkey!
  8. Parents know their children best. Help others understand where your child is learning their scripts. Maybe they often watch Peppa Pig, or your child repeats something you say frequently. When the other people on your child’s team know where scripts are coming from, they can acknowledge these and help your child develop more generative language.

No matter your child’s language learning style, you can help them by modeling language from their perspective, says Olheiser. So instead of saying, “Do you want an apple,” say, “Eat an apple,” or “I want apple.”  If you want to teach them to ask for help, don’t say, “I can help you,” rather model, “Mommy help.” This teaches them a clear and direct phrase to repeat.  

Another way to encourage communication with your child is by adding gestures, visual supports and written language. Communication comes in many forms, and the more ways you give your child to express themselves, the more likely you’ll be able to communicate with them. Also, remember that learning to communicate doesn’t necessarily look one way or take a linear path.