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Speech Therapist Answers: “Why Does My Child With Autism Echo Words and Sounds?”

Staff Report, FOCUS Therapy

When a child with autism is first learning how to speak, it’s often delayed and it may not develop in the same way as typically functioning children. As your Fort Myers speech therapist can explain, many begin by copying words they hear, as opposed to trying out new words or phrases they generate on their own. This type of “echoing” is clinically referred to as “echolalia,” and it’s often a vital first step in verbal communication.

Echolalia is the exact repetition or echoing of sounds or words. A child with autism will often use words in the same order – and sometimes even in the same tone – as what they hear, be it from another person or in a book or television show.

Although it may not have any communicative meaning (there is a difference between functional and non-functional echolalia), it can be an excellent place for your speech therapist to begin work with your child on meaningful communication.

Repetitive speech is a very common part of speech development, and just because your child displays it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In fact, many children will go through a stage of echolalia when they are learning to talk. However, most typically developing children complete that stage by the age of 3. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, echolalia can be a possible red flag for autism, when taken in conjunction with other signs and symptoms.

It was once thought that echolalia served no purpose. However, studies over the last several decades have shown that indeed, echolalia can help serve some important functions.

Specifically, it can give the child time to process what is being said and determine a response. It can also serve as a means to engage in conversational turn taking. For instance, if you ask your child, “Do you want some juice?”and receive the immediate response of “Do you want some juice?” – even with the same inflection – it could be your child’s way of answering in the affirmative. In some cases, echolalia can be a form of self-soothing/ stimming in times of stress.

Immediate Echolalia

As noted by researchers at Indiana University Bloomington’s Indiana Resource Center for Autism, immediate echolalia involves a repeated phrase or utterance echoed or produced almost right away after they are heard.

From a functional standpoint, the theory is immediate echolalia can give a child with autism and/ or comprehension difficulties a way to maintain social interaction. Your child’s speech therapist in Fort Myers can use this to help your child with things like turn-taking, requesting, answering questions and self-regulation.

Delayed Echolalia

This is when the repetition of speech happens at a later time, and it could be delivered with or without communicative intent. Speech therapists will sometimes refer to this as “scripting.”

Functionally, delayed echolalia can help a child non-interactively with self direction and rehearsal, and interactively with turn-taking, requests, protests, affirmation and gaining attention.

Treatment of Echolalia

At FOCUS Fort Myers, our speech therapists have a number of ways we can approach and use echolalia. We can start by giving the child words they don’t have and either prompting or modeling the correct way to say things, request or respond.

For instance, we may ask the child, “What color is the cup?” and then immediately follow up with, “It’s a red cup.” Or we could ask, “Do you need help?” and immediately follow up with, “I need help, please,” followed by, “Ok, I’ll help you.”

The exact approach your speech therapist uses will depend on the individual goals for your child. If you are concerned about your child’s echolalia, ask for a free initial consultation with a speech therapist at FOCUS.

FOCUS offers pediatric speech therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

Functional Categories of Immediate Echolalia, By Beverly Vicker, CCC-SLP, Indiana University Bloomington

More Blog Entries:

Study: Speech Delay May be Caused, Worsened By Excess Screen Time, June 19, 2017, FOCUS Speech Therapist Blog

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