If you're the mother or father of a verbal youngster diagnosed with Aspergers, you may have heard him or her repeat bits and pieces from videos or other sources. This type of communication is called "echolalia." It's a unique form of speech, and although it's thought of as a "symptom," it can also be a great place to start working with your youngster.
Echolalia is literally the repetition of words and sounds the child has heard either recently or quite a while ago. Verbal Aspergers kids are often "echolalic" (i.e., they do use words, and sometimes even use those words appropriately, but their word choice is based on a memorized pattern).
Sometimes, echolalia is immediate (e.g., dad says, "Michael, do you want a sandwich?" …and Michael responds, "You want a sandwich"). Just as often, echolalia is delayed (e.g., a youngster hears a line on television such as "got milk?" …and later when he's thirsty, he may say "got milk?" in exactly the same tone and accent as the ad on television). In both of these cases, the echolalia may sound odd, but in fact it's a method the Aspergers youngster has developed for communicating his/her wants and needs. The fact that the child has done so means that he/she is able to do much more with the help of a speech therapist.
In some cases, echolalia is less functional, but it's usually a good starting point for speech and/or play therapy. For example, a youngster might memorize entire segments of a favorite movie and recite them over and over. The youngster's purpose in reciting may be to calm down or reduce stress, but the recitation may also indicate a real fascination for aspects of the movie.
Children with Aspergers do interact and communicate; however, they do so in different ways. “Aspies” are truly more normal than abnormal. Even echolalia is a normal way to learn language. Most kids use echolalia to learn language. The majority of kids babble in a rhythmic way, which is actually mimicking the cadence of language. Later, they copy sounds, words, and eventually phrases and sentences that they hear grown-ups use in specific, repetitive contexts. Echolalia peaks at around age 30 months in “typical” kids, and then decreases.
Echolalia was once thought of as just another inappropriate behavior to eliminate in a child with Aspergers; however, researchers currently see it as a developmental phenomenon that occurs within the youngster's normal cognitive and linguistic maturation. Echolalia appears to be a "normal" step in the Aspie’s cognitive and language maturation, and is intrinsically rewarding to the youngster. The reinforcer is actually the youngster being able to match what others say.
Many Aspergers kids become experts at echoing the content of what is said by others, as well as the voice, inflexion, and manner in which the words were originally spoken. The value of echolalia for the child may be that the echoed words and contextual cues become stored information for him or her to refer to later as an internal rehearsal of the event.
The presence of echolalia has actually been identified as a positive sign in children with Aspergers. The presence of echolalia is an important prognostic indicator for future language growth. It appears that echolalia provides the "raw material" for further language growth. Kids with Aspergers who are echolalic developed good phrase speech later in life whether or not they received intensive language training.
If echolalia is one of the phases of normal language development, it would appear that continued echolalia indicates that the child with Aspergers is "stuck" at that level of development for a time, but then seems to overcome it and develop more normal speech patterns.
Regardless of the utility of echolalia for the child with Aspergers, the habit can interfere with social interaction and learning. Therefore, most therapists focus on helping the child move to a more creative form of language. A child with Aspergers is more likely to use echolalia when he or she had not learned an appropriate response to a particular question or request.