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Ways to Better Understand Echolalia and Vocal Stereotypy

October 12, 2023

My little boy will sometimes call cookies ‘biscuits,’ and gasoline ‘petrol.’ He has lived in the Midwestern United States all eight years of his life, but that does not stop him from saying, “I CAHN’T!” when asked to complete a task, or requesting ‘pahn-cakes’ for breakfast. Greyson has no idea where England is, but he knows every line to every Peppa Pig episode. When we pull into the grocery store parking lot, Grey often says, “We’ve got four things on the list: tomah-toes, spaghetti, onions, and fruit. I’ll find it all!” This is Peppa, word for word.

Ways to Better Understand Echolalia and Vocal Stereotypy

When we initially learn that our children are on the autism spectrum, we grapple with so many unknowns, and certainly one of the most significant is whether they will be verbally communicative. The levels at which people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can communicate vary. Those who are verbal commonly exhibit fundamental or developing speech behaviors, regardless of their ages. We, as parents or caretakers, become accustomed to repetitive speech, or even what we think is babbling. The great news is that not only are the behaviors typical and common, but they also may serve important purposes in our children’s developmental stages.

Echolalia and Scripting

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Ways to Better Understand Echolalia and Vocal Stereotype

When Greyson mimics Peppa Pig episodes, (or Paw Patrol or Max and Ruby or Finding Nemo…) he does so one of two ways. The first way is that he uses lines from the programs in context when he is not able to find his own words, which is a functional form of Echolalia, or ‘Scripting,’ as it is sometimes known. Children (and adults as well) will mimic movies, TV shows, books, and even other people, picking out words that make sense within a conversation. A great example is a parent asking a child, “Do you want a drink?” and the child responds, “You want a drink,” meaning, “Yes, I would,” but he used the parent’s words in a functional way to answer.

The second way is when Grey is in the bathtub, singing ‘The Bing Bong Song’ and yelling, “Hurry up, Suzy!” This is an example of nonfunctional echolalia, although some experts still argue that it can still aid in the progression of speech for someone on the autism spectrum. This type of behavior involves the repetition of the same lines or songs, often with no purpose or prompting, and without any contextual meaning. Proponents say that not only is it healthy and consistent speech exercise, but it also is a stimming practice that likely eases anxiety. Those who oppose typically do so due to social objection, out of concern that a setting could be disrupted by the behaviors.

Vocal Stereotypy

Each morning, I know Greyson is awake because he has a distinctive crow: a cross between a babble and a siren that goes from high to low over and over. We are used to it in our family. It’s louder at times, and softer at others, but it’s consistent throughout the day. This is vocal stereotypy, which is a cousin of echolalia, and is defined as “…any instance of noncontextual or nonfunctional speech, including singing, babbling, repetitive grunts, squeals, and phrases unrelated to the present situation.” Although plenty of information is available, no universal opinion exists on whether it is a necessary behavior, something to be rehabilitated, or both in due time. Many claims that the function is similar to nonfunctional echolalia for easing anxiety. Others have recommended gentle redirection of the behavior by interrupting with questions about non-related topics.

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The Stares: How I See It.

You’ve been there. So have I. The confused stares are inevitable when we are parents of children with ASD. When Greyson launches into a Peppa script or begins his joyful squeal in a public place, and heads begin to turn toward us, I know I have a choice in how I react. The reality is that he’s doing nothing wrong. The other reality—and please understand that this is my own take—those people don’t know my son.

They aren’t staring because they care. Maybe they’re curious, or maybe they’re judgmental. If my children and I are in a public place, it’s temporary, and I probably won’t see them again. An exception would be in a movie theater or library, where I would do what I could to make sure other people weren’t disrupted. But in a store or restaurant, my strategy is usually to ignore the onlookers, hug Greyson, and hear my favorite repetitive phrase of his: “Mommy, I love you.” I have known some parents who simply smile to open the door for questions, or at the very least, to make the people aware that their staring is being noticed. Becoming combative or defensive is sometimes tempting, but my opinion is that a confrontation would not only be unproductive, but it would also frighten and set a negative example for my children.

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Ways to Better Understand Echolalia and Vocal Stereotype

[1] Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis

2007 Summer; 40(2): 263–275

Assessing and Treating Vocal Stereotypy in children with autism

William H AhearnKathy M Clark, and Rebecca P.F MacDonald

New England Center for Children And Northeastern University

This article was featured in Issue 75 – Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive

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