Functions of Echolalia

This week I want to use a personal experience to conceptualize the shift that FDM provides and just how radical it can be. This week, I observed a parent pose a simple question in a parenting group: “Does anyone have any recommendations for a television show that prioritizes kind or helpful language?” The parent indicated the child uses echolalia a lot of time to communicate. The parent was in expanding her repertoire of scripts to have some more options. What felt like a fairly simple question was met with lots of fairly unhelpful feedback about how the parent “allowing” the child to script was “covering up her social communication deficits.” I want to break these statements apart to expose the hidden values and understandings that drive them, and to offer something better.

Assumption 1: Echolalia is not “authentic” or “spontaneous” communication.

One of the main assumptions in this group was that the way this child used scripted language was not meaningful, authentic or social. This could not be further from the truth! Many autistic people (and children in general), draw on language they have heard to communicate. Children will delightfully use language from shows to communicate feelings, interest, and connection with other children. It is purposeful and shows a great deal of creativity and social reciprocity.

Assumption 2: The child’s language did not fit the situation and was therefore inappropriate.

In this example, many of the responses focused on how the child’s scripts were “covering” for the child not understanding socially. Many times, children are matching something else entirely that truly does make sense in the context. For example, a child might say “eat my dust, slow-poke!” to another child who wants to race them. It might sound intense or incendiary, but the child has made the connection that they are in competition with one another and has drawn from what language they have that fits for that situation. Additionally, children will also match scripts to emotional input instead of a situation. For example, a child might say something a character says when they are excited, to show excitement or enjoyment. The child is making deep connections to their experience.

Assumption 3: Echolalia should be discouraged.

This parent’s choice was correct in that she was honoring her child’s communication as valid and purposeful, and was thinking about her home environment. Echolalia is valid communication and the parent’s responsibility is to provide a robust and useful variety of language that can be drawn on. By focusing on what language she could add to her repertoire, she had flipped from a deficit model to a social model.

I want to use this in introduce a concept we are tentatively calling “script curation.” We believe that all communication is valid. When we identify environmental barriers, such as only accessing shows with certain types of language or tone, we can alter the environment to support children. In this case, the child needed more examples of things to say during a race or competition and a quick search found a few episodes of shows that she already liked that had scenes or story lines about races or competitions. As parents and professionals, this is what it looks like to work with a child’s natural communication and to support it through the environment. Stay tuned to FDM, and please don’t forget to register for our upcoming webinar series!