What is Echolalia? And Can It Hold Your Child Back?

What is Echolalia, And Can It Hold Your Child Back

Takeaway: All children mimic and echo the things they hear. It’s called echolalia and it’s how they learn a language. But some children rely on it too much and it prevents them from truly expressing themselves. As a parent, you can learn to decode what your child is saying, but a skilled speech therapist can help you uncover and address the deeper issues at play.

We humans learn by imitating things. And this is true with language, too.

Most of us learn skills by imitating people who are good at them. And you’ll notice young children do this as they try and learn how to speak. After babies go through their babbling phase, they begin mimicking their parents’ speech. They start with simple words — maybe ‘mamma’ or ‘dada’ — and move on to more complicated ones. They might stumble over these advanced words (perhaps saying ‘vewy’ instead of ‘very’), but this echoing is an essential, instinctual part of the language-learning process.

‘Echolalia’ is a term that describes the habit children have of repeating the phrases and sounds they hear. It’s perfectly normal but becomes a concern if your child doesn’t grow out of it.

It’s fascinating how a toddler pieces language together through imitation. First, she’ll repeat random syllables without knowing what they mean. Then she’ll start playing around with the syllables to replicate the words and phrases she hears. Soon, she’ll graduate to short sentences, then longer sentences, and finally free-flowing, flexible speech. Echolalia in a 1- or 2-year-old is essential, but by 3 or 4, children have usually stopped mimicking others. They’re now able to express their thoughts in original, creative ways. They might still imitate from time to time, or when they’re tired and frustrated, but not often and not for long. And this is why echolalia in older children is a concern. It’s a sign that they’re struggling to express themselves. For example, if you ask a child with echolalia if she’s hungry, she may want to give you an answer but can’t. So all she can do is repeat your question. This mimicking is the only tool she has to express herself.

When you listen to a child who uses echolalia, you’ll begin to notice patterns.

Psychologists have explored the different ways children use mimicry. For example, they describe immediate vs delayed echolalia. With immediate echolalia, a child might repeat what you say, right after you say it. If you ask, ‘Do you want to go home?’ she might say, ‘You want to go home.’ With delayed echolalia, the child memorises a phrase (perhaps a funny line from her favourite show) and repeats it later.

This echoing might seem meaningless, but it isn’t.

There are times when echolalia is involuntary and purposeless — for example, if someone’s frontal lobe gets damaged in a car accident. But for a child with echolalia, the mimicking has meaning. It’s her way of engaging with the people around her, and it’s often quite nuanced. For example, if she wants to watch a movie but can’t express this thought, she might quote a line from Frozen as her way of referencing ‘movies’ in general. That’s a very creative way of using the verbal tools she has, right? Even when she’s not using echolalia to communicate, it has a purpose. Often, it’s a way of reassuring herself that things are okay when she’s feeling stressed.

As a parent, you can learn to look beyond what your child says, to understand what she intends to say.

If your child is repeating a phrase, it’s usually for one of the following reasons.

  1. To ask for something. For example, if she says, ‘Do you want to play?’, it could be her way of saying, ‘I want to play’.
  2. To state something. She might say, ‘Don’t you want to play?’ as a way of saying, ‘I don’t want to play’.
  3. To get your attention. So, she might repeat something that amused her in the past because she thinks it’ll draw your attention the same way it did hers.
  4. To practise. She might rehearse for an upcoming conversation by repeating to herself what she’s planning to say.
  5. To register something. For example, she might spot her favourite toy in a shop and mark the observation by humming the jingle from the toy’s ad.
  6. To entertain herself. Sometimes a movie quote is just a movie quote! Why not recall something you found fun?

Eventually, though, you’ll want to consult a speech therapist for help, because there are too many variables at play.

Some parents talk about how nice it is to get a sneak-peek at what happened to their child at school — because she’ll inevitably replay most of the key phrases and sentences she heard that day. But beyond a certain age, constant echoing can get a bit much. And this is where a speech therapist can help because she’ll be able to trace your child’s echolalia back to its source. For example, it could be that your child struggles with language, and she needs help working on a few core skills. But sometimes it’s not about language. Sometimes, it’s that your child hasn’t learnt how to say something. Perhaps she answers a question by echoing it back to you? If that’s the case, a therapist can start modelling better ways to respond. And then there’s echolalia that’s self-soothing, for which the therapist can teach your child new coping skills for stress. The common theme here is to spot and tackle underlying causes — which takes skill and time.

The good news is that there are strategies to reduce your child’s use of echolalia and help her communicate more freely.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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