Echolalia: The immediate and involuntary repetition of words or phrases just spoken by others, often a symptom of autism or some types of schizophrenia.
from ECHO + Greek lalia, which means "talk"
~ American Heritage Dictionary
Jack's speech development has been anything but typical. When he was a little guy just past the age of 12 months, I used to sit with him in his highchair - face to face with my angel - and just pray to get something in return. Anything. A word. A laugh. A smile.
The words were not there. The smiles and laughter were rare. Instead, I'd get things that were worrisome, like constant vomiting. Jack would also shake his head violently from side-to-side, though he has yet to shake his head as a way to gesture "no".
Jack's language development has taken so many twists and turns, from the delays to the God-knows-how-scary regression to being non-verbal and then back up the developmental ladder once again.
The language development came painfully slow. Trying to connect the dots between an actual concrete image or object and the symbolic representation - the word - was difficult. We had to get across the purpose of language.
About a year ago, the words began to come. When they did, his language development took another deviation from the norm. Enter the world of echolalia.
I think that echolalia is very difficult for someone who is unfamiliar with special needs to understand. You see, echolalia is exactly what it sounds like - a child "echoes" what he or she hears. We all use echolalia from time-to-time. Each time you say a one-liner from your favorite movie, you are engaging in echolalia.
Where it gets tricky is when people don't realize what exactly your child is doing. Jack will say full sentences when he's echolalic - when the words aren't his own - but when he speaks spontaneously his language takes the form of one-word, maybe two-limited word, phrases.
Some kids use echolalia functionally. Others use it as a comfort. Jack tends to do the latter. On any given day, about 80-90% of his speech is echolalia, with a smattering of increasing spontaneous speech thrown into the mix.
For many kids on the spectrum, echolalia takes a couple of forms. One is known as immediate echolalia, in which a child repeats what they've just heard. For Jack, one of the most common ways we'll hear him do this is repeating questions back to us rather than providing a response. So when we say "Do you need help?", he'll say "Do you need help?" He knows he's supposed to say something, but doesn't know what the appropriate response is.
The second form is delayed echolalia - or repeating things heard in the past. Jack will repeat entire scripts of TV shows verbatim, even using the same inflection as the original. Jack's memory is incredible; he can remember entire songs, TV shows, and scripts from his iPad or other toys after only hearing them once. Whether he fully understands what he says is something else entirely.
If I had to have a favorite form of echolalia, it would be Jack's singing. He hates - absolutely hates - when I sing, but his song is another story. Music simply speaks to him. He could sing before he could speak. The words come out a bit garbled as his articulation plummets with his echolalia, but the melody is fully understandable. The words are music to my ears.
And he loves it. He flaps and smiles in those outward expressions that are so uniquely Jack.
We use song as a way to create circles of communication with Jack. As I mentioned in a recent post on Floortime techniques we use in our house (you can read this post --> here <--), this is a favorite. I will begin to sing a song and wait for Jack to fill in the blanks. It's a way we can interact and a way that we can have that back-and-forth exchange with our boy.
Sure it gets stimmy. It also gets very scripted. Is each word precious coming out in Jack's little high-pitched voice? Absolutely.
Do we need to work on communication skills more? Oh, God yes. We will keep working - likely forever - to help Jack communicate his wants and needs to a world that seems to speak a different language than he does. For the time-being, I'll relish each word and note, whether they are his own unique thoughts or not.
It may not be communicative in quite the way that the rest of us do it, but each word is ever so sweet.