Tag Archives: echolalia

Polite Conversation

‘What ho!’ I said.

‘What ho!’ said Motty.

‘What ho! What ho!’

‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’

After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

-P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919) ‘Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest’

Yesterday, Aidan’s best friend of seven years was visiting at our house. In the spring, he moved three and a half hours away, so the boys don’t get to see each other very often. They talk a lot on the phone, but Aidan always looks forward to getting to spend some time with his friend when he’s in town. And yesterday, spur of the moment, he called right as Aidan was getting home from school. “I’m in town visiting my dad,” K said to me on the phone. “Is it okay if I come over for a bit?”

So Aidan and K had a blast hanging out and playing video games together. I threw in a pizza for dinner and called all three boys out to the table when it was ready. Nigel came out last, fresh off a movie in his room. He knew that K was visiting and greeted him as he sat down. I sat about fifteen feet away in the living room, reading.

They had barely taken two bites, presumably, when Nigel launched into some lengthy delayed echolalia. (Technically, these days it’s called ‘scripting,’ but ten years ago, when it was his primary means of communication, we didn’t have that terminology yet. Or at least I didn’t. His therapists called it ‘delayed echolalia,’ a term which has stuck with me.) I had no idea what was going on with him. He kept going on, rapidly reciting something in a strange tone of voice. Aidan and I, glancing at each other, were stunned by this monologue. Nigel often still says single lines from movies, or a couple lines of dialogue run together, but nothing this lengthy. Poor K was trying to nicely respond, to acknowledge Nigel and converse with him. He’s been at our house so many times over the years that he’s quite used to Nigel’s different way of communicating, but he wasn’t sure what to make of this. I decided to gently intervene.

“Nigel? What are you saying? You need to use your own words, okay?”

“I’m just making polite conversation!” he shot back. I’d be willing to bet money that this was also a line from something, just by the way he said it.

“When you’re having a conversation, it’s best to use your own words so that people know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t need to say things from movies,” Aidan added gently.

“It’s not from a movie! It’s from a book! Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!” he growled.

“Okay, well, how about if you just eat now?” I suggested. I really didn’t know what else to say. I knew he’d been reading that book (the original) for several weeks, but I had no idea he’d been memorizing it. And why the sudden inappropriate monologue? He’s done much shorter versions (of delayed echolalia) in the past when we’ve had multiple people at our house, or in unfamiliar situations, but I couldn’t figure out why he needed to do it last night. Was it a sign of a mini-regression? A conversational test on someone familiar? What gives?

I gave it a lot of thought, and then it hit me. It’s because he’s autistic, of course. His language development was extremely late and labored. The art of conversation is something that may always be out of his reach. Yes, he can communicate. At this point in his life, he usually does it fairly well. But communicating and conversing are two different skills, and the skill of conversing is something with which he will most likely continue to struggle.

We often say, “Two steps forward, one step back,” or a variation thereof.  I could choose to look at last night’s conversation attempt as a step back. But in reality I think it was sort of a side step, a lateral move. He was testing the waters. In fact, I talked to him about it later when we were alone, and he confirmed my theory.

“I just wanted to try something new. I thought it would be fun. K seemed to handle it fine.”

“Yes. That’s because he knows you really well. But it’s probably not a good idea to do that with people who don’t know you very well, because they won’t understand.”

“I just don’t feel like I could give it up.”

“You don’t have to give it up. Just try to only do it around people who know you well. Okay?”


I think maybe it was a step forward after all.

I Heart Echolalia


I’ve seen some great posts on echolalia around the blogosphere lately. One point in particular that I keep thinking about was from Maddy’s post, in which she mentioned that someone had found her blog by searching “methods to stop echolalia.” Yes, it can be annoying sometimes, and maybe completely random, but hey! Your child is talking. Do you get it? Why would you want to stop that?

I have written about Nigel’s language development through various stages of echolalia. Yes, there have been times in recent years when I have prompted him to use his own words instead of a memorized phrase to communicate, but that’s because I know that he now has the ability to do that, to use his own words. Echolalia is comforting to him, however, and he reverts to that in high-stress situations. And in those situations, it’s more important to help him to calm down than to stop the echolalia. I don’t tell him “You can use your own words” when he’s on the verge of a meltdown. But sometimes, when he’s calm and comfortable, I encourage him to rephrase whatever he’s saying. I’ll gently suggest, “You don’t need to say things from videos right now. Try to tell me in your own words.” And he does now, because he’s able to. But I would never want to take that part of him away completely. He’s said some really funny things because of his delayed echolalia (scripting)! It’s how he learned to talk, and for that reason, I’m sentimental about it.

Why on earth, when a brave child is venturing into the speaking realm, would someone want to stop echolalia? Let them do it! Let them practice! When someone is learning to play the piano, there is a lot of bothersome plinking and plunking going on, usually on a daily basis. But after a long time of that, a song emerges, sometimes one that they have composed themselves. And there will still be plenty more plunking and plinking as the years go by. But also – we hope – more songs.

Echolalia Strikes Again

The scene:  It is a beautiful sunny day. A group of four is having an early dinner at a bistro-style restaurant with outside seating. They are seated at a table near a walkway that borders a pretty creek framed by lush trees and foliage.  People are strolling by, looking at craft booths set up farther along the walkway. A young couple walks past the table of the four people, glancing at the teenage boy who is maniacally waving his arms around, yelling about bees. He gets up and runs off about twenty feet. The woman in the group of four, presumably his mother, coaxes him back to the table with a glass of soda, assuring him that the bee is gone. The boy reluctantly returns.

The young couple surveys the pretty, burbling creek. Their arms are around each other; they are enjoying the romantic setting.  They begin to kiss.

Teen boy at table says in loud voice:  Looks like we’re about to encounter a saliva exchange.

The other occupants of the table try to stifle their laughter, and the boy smirks and says, “That’s from My Favorite Martian.”

The mother doesn’t dare look at the young couple behind her. Signaling her son to keep his voice down, she holds her finger to her still-smiling lips and hopes that the food will arrive soon.

Assessing Development

Development sometimes seems so elusive and immeasurable. When you’re with your child every day, it is often difficult to see any development. For me, it becomes more apparent when Nigel returns after visiting his father for seven weeks every summer. It is then that I notice changes in development. Some are subtle, such as a slight increase in speech, and some are more obvious, such as being two inches taller. Every year Nigel progresses, whether it is obvious or not.

I keep a file (several, actually) of his school records, IEP reports, and my own writing describing his development over the years. I have been looking through the files this week and am enjoying reading about his development, marveling at how far he has come. This is an excerpt from ‘Nigel at Six:’

I had intended to start writing this sooner. Pictures are not enough to remember these early years. Videos help immensely, but they do not capture thoughts and dreams, concerns and hopes.

All people change and grow, but I think I will spend my entire life learning about Nigel. Who is this little boy? Part genius, part tough, all loving. He has been with Child Development Center for two years now, and I can communicate with him levels above how I did when he started. He is a wondrous person, a gentle soul. Trusting, yet fearful of new situations. I can’t explain to him why he needs to sit at the table in restaurants and stay near me in the grocery store. Of course, I must remind myself that it has gotten better. He understands more of what I tell him, but too often I don’t  think of what to tell him until it is too late. Last time we tried to eat in a restaurant, he went up to some other patrons at their table, got right in their faces and proclaimed, “Balto!” because he had watched that video earlier in the day.

He is starting to use pronouns now, usually at home where he is comfortable, although he confuses which one to use when, “I” for “you” and vice versa. We are still hearing nonsensical words, words he uses when he’s trying to imitate a line from a video and he doesn’t know what was actually said. For example, in The Lion King when Simba tells Zazu “Hurry!” in an urgent voice, because he needed help. Nigel thought it was said in an angry voice, so whenever he’s angry, he yells, “Urr-reee!” and has for about two years now. Or he would say, also in anger, “It’s my gun, you’ve got no right to take it!” from the Swiss Family Robinson. Fortunately that was short-lived. Another good one was from the Scooby-Doo video. When Aidan split his chin open, we had to go to the doctor for stitches, and the regular doctor had just moved to a new location. So we got to the new office and were just about to walk in the front door when Nigel stopped and said, “I don’t like it,” as Shaggy had said when they were about to go into a haunted house. Nigel had used the phrase in perfect context as a way to indicate his fear about a new situation.

He’s even come up with some phrases on his own, emerging spontaneous, non-echolalic speech, which is wonderful. When I got back from a three-day trip to Paris, he emptied my backpack and filled it with his own shoes and clothes, put it on and walked around the room saying, “Nigel go to Paris. Nigel is tripping [meaning, going on a trip].” He has learned in school to comment whenever someone participates by saying, “Good catching,” “Good throwing,” “Good drawing,” “Good sitting down,” and when he can’t describe something specifically, he says, “Good job in doing,” which I love.

And the boy who taught himself to read at three and a half is sounding out words he doesn’t even know. Yes, it’s hyperlexia, but at least he shows cognitive strength in that. Unfortunately, he seems to have difficulty with holding pens – even fat ones – and trying to write. He is very resistant. He loves to watch other people write, but he freaks out if I try to put my hand over his to get him to do it. It’s a shame, because I think that once he learns to write, that will liberate him to no end.   

Mr. Association

Nigel’s language development has always intrigued me. I have written previously about his use of echolalia to communicate and how it progressed through different stages over the years (stages that I identified and labeled on my own: please note that they are not “official”). The teachers and therapists who have worked with him at various times, especially in the early years, but even now, have often commented on his ability to take lines from videos and use them within the context of a situation.

Nigel has always loved the Disney movies, especially the animated ones, but at the age of five he began watching some of the live-action films. He loved The Swiss Family Robinson, and still does. One day, his behavioral therapist, unaware that he had been watching that movie at home, told me that when Nigel got angry at her he had said, “It’s my gun, you’ve got no right to take it!” Imagine the awkwardness as I tried to explain to her that he had taken that line from a movie. I wonder if she was thinking that I routinely left guns laying around the house and reprimanded my children when they picked one up. The movie scene in question was when the older brother took the younger brother’s gun away from him, and the younger brother was angry about it. Nigel said the line as a way to indicate that he was angry about being told to do something he didn’t want to do. When I explained the movie scene to Nigel’s therapist, I could see the relief wash over her face. Then she said, “I understand now! That’s part of why we call him ‘Mr. Association,’ because he’s so good at associating things like that.” 

Quoting lines from videos is no longer Nigel’s primary means of communication, although he still likes to do it occasionally. He also likes to take words or phrases that he remembers from movies, TV shows, or something he picks up online, and try to use them appropriately. Sometimes he is successful with this, other times not. Today during homeschool, while working on subtracting mixed numbers, he did it seamlessly.

Nigel: I don’t want to do subtraction. It’s not really my bag.

Me: Cleaning cat vomit off the carpet is not really my bag, but it still needs to be done.

I think he got the picture.

The Social Realm

In his quest for friendship, Nigel regularly requests sleep-overs. It took a while for him to accept the fact that he could only invite friends to spend the night at our house, as opposed to inviting himself to spend the night at friends’ houses. I think he now understands the way that works, after about three dozen reminders. So last weekend, he invited two brothers from one of the Scout families we know to spend the night, and I made some mental notes as I watched Nigel’s social development in action.

He spent most of the evening in echolalic mode, which worried me. He used echolalia as a tool to be social before he was functionally verbal, but we don’t usually see much of it these days. The exception to that is when he is stressed, which sometimes happens when he’s trying to make peers think that he’s just like them. What he was doing Friday night was not what I call stage 1 echolalia, which is parroting (repeating back what is said to him). He started off with that between the ages of 3 and 6, and moved on to what I call stage 2 echolalia, which is repeating random lines from videos he has watched. Stage 3 echolalia is repeating certain lines from videos and trying to fit them within the context of the situation. Stage 4 is taking those strategically used lines from videos and customizing them by inserting correct names and other details relevant to the situation. Nigel now mixes stage 4 with his own spontaneous speech on a daily basis. But occasionally, when stressed or unsure of himself socially, he reverts to stage 3 and even stage 2.

During dinner Friday night, he was so worked up that he was quoting random lines from the live-action Scooby-Doo movie. I think he was trying to make the kids laugh, because he could hear the movie in his head and it was making him laugh, and he was trying to share that with them. But by merely spouting the lines randomly, he only caused confusion for the boys. They were polite and accepting, but they didn’t know how to respond, and I could tell they were uncomfortable. So I had to poke my head in the room and try to steer the conversation to a different topic.

I aurally checked in a few minutes later, and Nigel was doing a little better. He had moved on to stage 3, and I overheard him say a line from Jurassic Park: “In 48 hours I’ll be accepting your apologies,” when his friend accidentally bumped him. By the time dinner was over, he was back to mostly employing his own speech, which I think occurred because the boys started talking about James Bond movies, which is Nigel’s Obsession of the Week. Aidan and the two guests were discussing the story about the painted girl in Goldfinger dying because her skin couldn’t breathe, and the fact that Mythbusters disproved it. (I smirked back in the kitchen and refrained from telling them about my college days, when a friend of mine did a photography project using models painted in all one color, and I was yellow. Suffocation was not a concern at that point.)

But the good part was that Nigel had calmed down enough to interact appropriately with his peers. How he was acting earlier made me think that he was probably like that at the middle school, and there was no adult around to moderate the conversation, so things just escalated to the point where an intolerant NT kid punched him in the face or told him to run laps around the field and laughed at him. It’s easy to see how he reverts to the stages of echolalia when he is over-socialized because it’s comfort behavior. It’s something that he knows. When some random kid at school is talking to him, he doesn’t know what to expect. So he starts playing a movie in his mind and starts verbalizing the lines that he’s hearing because he knows what comes next. And that is one of the reasons why mainstreaming won’t work right now. He still has a lot to figure out in the social realm. I certainly prompt him when I can, when I’m there, but most of it he’ll have to do on his own.