A common characteristic of children with autism who are verbal or children who are still developing their language is that they repeat words or phrases that their parents or teachers have said. They might even repeat phrases from their favourite television show or their favourite song! This is known as echolalia.
There are different types of echolalia:
Immediate echolalia – this is when they repeat words or phrases straight after they have heard them
Delayed echolalia – this is when they will say a phrase or sentence that they may have heard earlier in the day or even weeks or months before. It is noticeable to their communication partners because whatever they are saying may seem very out of context or irrelevant to the conversation.
The reason why echolalia occurs is because children with autism have a different way in which they process their language to typically developing children. Typically developing children generally start picking up single words then progress to two-word phrases, then three-word phrases and sentences. Some children with autism find it difficult to process language in shorter blocks and pick up the language and process it in longer phrases or sentences. They pick up the language in blocks because they find it harder to understand the individual words that they have heard.
Often children with echolalia repeat words or phrases with some intention:
To accept an item/activity that has been presented to them: When a parent or teacher may present them with something they like and say for example, “Would you like this jumper?” they may repeat the question. This could be their way of communicating that yes, in fact they would like the jumper.
To request when there are a few items/activities present: When a parent may ask their child if they would like to play with a ball or bubbles, they may say ‘ball or bubbles?’ as they are unsure how to communicate what they want but have an interest in the items presented.
To show interest in an activity/item: Their barriers in communication make it difficult to ask for something they don’t know how to reach out for. For example, they might want to watch a Wiggles video so they might say ‘hot potato, hot potato’ which is their form of asking for the Wiggles video.
To show disinterest: If they do not want something that you have offered, for example eat a particular vegetable, your child might say ‘you don’t want the carrot?’ which is their way of saying they do not want to eat it.
Now you may ask … so how do I get my child to ask for things appropriately?
There is one main technique you can try at home to work on making your child use more meaningful communication: MODELLING, MODELLING, MODELLING!
Create barriers for items they want: You could try putting their favourite cookie on top of a shelf. Your child might reach out for the cookie, he/she might even say ‘Do you want the cookie?’ In this situation all we want to do is model the correct way to request: ‘I want the cookie please’ and then proceed to give them the cookie. They either will immediately repeat the correct sentence or in time, they will create meaning between the words you have said and the reward they get.
Do scripted play: You could try using puppets or soft toys and hand a toy to your child and have one toy with you. Practice using a script where they would need to use the language. For example:
Parent with Kitty Puppet: “Hello Doggy Puppet, would you like to play?”
It is likely your child (with a Doggy Puppet) will repeat this question.. instead you will ignore their question and model “Hello Kitty Puppet, yes I would like to play.” This modelling will take practice and it is good to have a pre-prepared three or four lines of a script to practice.
Note: It is important to refrain from using words like ‘Say ____’ or ‘Good job!’ because your child will likely copy these phrases too which are not meaningful to the context.
Do turn-taking games: Using games like Pop Up Pirate, matching games or building blocks are great to work on ‘Your turn’ and ‘My turn.’ It is important to work on making eye-contact with your child (you may bring their hand to your face to do this) so that they can start to understand that there are at least two perspectives to consider in a conversation: you and your child!
1. Goldstein, Howard. (2002). Communication Intervention for Children with Autism: A Review of Treatment Efficacy. Journal of autism and developmental disorders. 32. 373-96. 10.1023/A:1020589821992.
2. Paul, R. and Norbury, C. (2012). Language disorders from infancy through adolescence. St. Louis, Mo.: Elsevier.