Many of the children we work with engage in echolalia – where they would repeat words that you say to them.  It sometimes feels that they are speaking “at you” instead of fluently “with you”. We are usually excited when we meet a child that echoes back what we say, as this means that expressive speech is present and this child can express vocally what they want.  We need to now find out what that is.  

The most important thing, always, is to establish what your child’s interests are.  Many parents and therapists would say “he doesn’t like anything”, which we do not believe for one second.  There is always something – think outside the box, don’t even think of a box! Maybe to jump into our out of or to build and create a sensory corner, but definitely not to compare our children with “neuro-typical” children.  They are unique and we love them for it! So, their interests might be a little “out there” at times or quite specific, such as only blue lids of bottles. If you find out what your child likes, you have the key to connect with him or her on the level they like! 

There are a few tricks that we would love to share with you that have been proven to work with kids that engage in echolalic speech.  I need to relate this to one of my first experiences in working in the field of autism. I met a child on the spectrum and immediately loved the way his mind worked.  He was diagnosed as being “nonverbal” or non-speaking as we call it, but the interesting thing was that when his nanny followed him once to the garden he had a long (full-sentence) discussion with his dog! He was able to talk – he just chose who he wanted to let in on this and he probably felt less threatened by his dog who didn’t expect him to say something specific or answer ambiguous questions.  I then decided that I want to work in this field and have never looked back. 

As fate had it – I opened the newspaper during my Honors year in Psychology and there was an ad that said “Therapist needed for a girl diagnosed with ASD. No experience needed.”  I was chosen to work with this little angel out of many other applicants that actually had experience in the field. Her name (I have permission to say this) is Akhila, which means “complete”, very fittingly.  Akhila was echolalic and would only repeat 1 to 2 words that I said. I didn’t have experience as a therapist, but I loved children, so I found out what she liked, which was very blatantly everytime I played music.  She would always go and sit next to the stereo and wait for me to switch it on. I then played her favorite song and would start pausing the end of the song. Akhila, to my amazement, started singing the last word of the song.  Her echolalia soon became functional speech and we continued working together for years. She is now 17 years old and has long conversations about different countries, cultures and boys with me.  

The point is that I found something she loved and then utilized this within our “lessons”.  Just to end that story – a year later I asked her Mom why she chose me and not one of the other candidates that had years of experience.  Her mom said, “because you saw her and didn’t just look at her”. Those words will stay with me forever.

So, a few tricks that you can try if you have a child that is echolalic: 

  1. Find out what he/she likes and use “fill in the gap” prompts.  If it’s music play a bit and wait to see if your child will perhaps start speaking spontaneously.  
  2. Do a lot of turn-taking activities – it doesn’t need to be focused on expressive speech – we just want our children to get used to taking turns – just like having a conversation.  
  3. Use gestural prompts, such as pointing to objects (that your child likes in the room) with some animated facial expressions.  You can look at something funny and show a “wow” face and then wait, your child might comment.  
  4. Be patient – we don’t want to ever force our children to speak the way we feel is “normal”.  If they echo sounds and words, I can (almost) promise you that functional speech will come! 
  5. Music works well – because of the rhythm it’s an excellent way to help your child with spontaneous language.  
  6. Use a gestural prompt to show “stop” by putting up your hand.  Every time you say something use this prompt for your child to wait before they respond.  Sometimes echolalia becomes an automatic response. We want our children to take a moment to process before they react and a simple “wait” sign might help here.  
  7. You can also use a tactile prompt where you have a talking block (or a different item) that the person holds who is busy talking.  When your “turn” is done, you pass the block to the next person and then they have to say something – anything.  
  8. Give your child a choice of one highly preferred item and one non preferred item.  Then quickly stop them from repeating the entire choice and help them to choose the “correct” one by showing it to them.  

There are many other strategies that we can implement, but this is generally a good start. Let us know if it works and if you need more details or different strategies! Email us at [email protected] 

Enjoy your time with your awesome kid!