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Non-communicative echolalia in autism:

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

If it’s not for communication, what’s the point?

As I didn’t know much at the time, I made a mistake thinking that as soon as my son started speaking, everything would be fine. However, though Alyosha did start talking at the age of seven, ‘talking’ is not the word to describe his verbal utterances. My boy echoed words and phrases that he had heard in the past, often irrelevant to the situation, or just ‘talked’ to himself. There seemed to be words which he especially liked, not for the meaning but for their sound pattern. He could ‘play’ with them – repeating very loudly and giggling – for hours.

Autistic children learn the language through the rote learning of phrases and sentences (from nursery rhymes, commercials, TV programmes, etc.), often without understanding that language is a tool for communication. This phenomenon is known as echolalia – the parrot-like repetition of what the child heard in the past (delayed echolalia) or just now in the current situation (immediate echolalia). An echolalic utterance is usually equivalent to a single unit (word) for a situation or event.

Immediate and delayed echolalia may be observed in typical development as a language-learning strategy. However, in typical development, it is a short phase and eventually children learn to break down the echolalic chunks into smaller and meaningful units; they make many modifications and learn to construct phrases and sentences. In autism, on the other hand, echolalia is not just a short stage of language acquisition, it lasts much longer, sometimes well into adulthood, or even remains the only verbal means of expression a person possesses.

Echolalia may be both non-communicative and communicative.

In this blog we'll discuss non-communitive echolalia. Why do autistic children utter words, phrases or sentences, if not for communication? It’s pointless, isn’t it? Actually, it is not. Non-communicative echolalia is not meaningless and has several functions, such as, for example:

- Sensory use of words (sensory play, self-stimulation): Many autistic children will produce sounds, words or phrases to themselves, just in order to get some auditory and/ or tactile pleasure. In this case, words and phrases are not linguistic units, they are ‘sensory toys’ to play with: the child simply enjoys the sounds of words/ the tactile sensation the sounds produce on the tongue or lips. These sounds are the child’s ‘sensory toys’ to play with.

- Synaesthetic pleasurable experiences: If the child has synaesthesia, he may repeat words and phrases to enjoy (visual, tactile, olfactory, etc,) images they produce: the words have shape, colour, light, sound, smell, etc. – they have a ‘sensory meaning’, not linguistic meaning.

- Rehearsing/learning words: Some young autistic children like to echo (again and again) ‘adult’ words, such as, for example ‘hippopotamus’ or ‘chrysanthemum’. The words are usually long and morphologically complicated (the more difficult, the better). The words seem to be chosen for their unusual sound structure or the feeling they produce on the tongue.

- Giving instruction to oneself: The child repeats learned rules triggered by something in the environment, for instance: ‘Wash your hands before your meal’, ‘No running in the swimming pool’, ‘Only cross the road on ‘zebra crossings’, etc. (This is very useful: the child, ‘reminding’ himself of what is expected, often follows the ‘instruction’ that he gave himself.)

- Comforting: when the child is anxious or upset, echolalia increases; repeating sound patterns is comforting.

- It just feels nice.

How shall we react to non-communicative echolalia?

If the child is stressed or confused, echolalia is a way of calming himself. As echolalia increases in stressful or confusing situations, create a ‘stress-free’ environment to decrease confusion, overstimulation and anxiety.

On the other hand, if the child enjoys repeating ‘words’ (i.e., it’s ‘sensory’ play), remember it is meaningful for autistic children. Instead of trying to stop them producing ‘silly sounds’, you could share the meaning (and it is one step forward to learn their ‘language’) and gradually (if it really annoys you) you could give them some sort of substitute (something else that brings the same sensation/ stimulation) or just accept it as their eccentricity. One should think very carefully whether it must be eliminated.

Let’s be fair. We all have our favourite activities to indulge into when we have free time. What if someone (who thinks he/she knows better) would tell you off and say, for example: Stop watching this silly programme/ gardening/ meditation/ [insert whatever you like to do]? How would you react? For example: if you (like me) don’t like football, would you switch off the TV when your partner is watching the match? I guess, you (like me) wouldn’t, even if you (like me) think it’s a waste of time. 😊

So, if other people do things that simply feel good, why shouldn’t an autistic child do that as well?

Of course, there should be time and place (‘work first, then play’) for relaxation and enjoying the activities one likes – for both autistic and non-autistic people.

This is taken from my new book series 'Becoming a Professional Parent - (2) Learning to Speak Autistic' (to be published next year).


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