(UN)REAL TALK: THE TEASE OF ECHOLALIA

As part of my posts recognizing Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month: I originally wrote this for the The Organization for Autism Research’s blog back in 2016…

Mikey’s rendition of Spongebob

The common songbird, such as the starling, mockingbird, or jay, can mimic human words to such a degree that they’ve frequently been mistaken for actual people. Some studies say that this mimicry is simply a mistaken effort to imitate species-specific calls. No matter how convincing it may sound, it’s not real talk.

For those of our autistic children who experience echolalia, they too are attempting mimicry for imitation purposes. Echolalia is often found in most developing children, but it is very common in those on the autism spectrum. Echolalia is defined as, “The often pathological repetition of what is said by other people as if echoing them” (Merriam-Webster).

That is a workable definition, but doesn’t mention the frustration and difficulties experienced by the person exhibiting echolalia, or by those attempting to communicate with them. It also doesn’t mention that some children “grow out of” echolalia and develop regular speech, having used echolalia as a learning device.

For my son Mikey, at age eleven, echolalia still dominates his speech. His rare original, inspired words are predominantly requests for juice, snacks, etc. Nine times out of ten, Mikey’s voice is heard reciting dialog from cartoons or children’s videos from YouTube. His talk is memorized words, sounds, and sentences. It is like a tease.

On top of that, his echolalia is constant. He is rarely quiet, which can lead to some embarrassing moments when a loud, “This calls for a Mousketool” is bellowed in Mickey or Goofy’s voice across a library or doctor’s office. There have also been times when his choice of words has made us cringe, such as when his grandmother said, “I love you” and Mikey responded with, “It doesn’t matter.” Ouch! I touched on the potential dangers of his word choices in my last blog (He’s Just a Boy Who Can’t Say No).

But don’t get me wrong, I love Mikey’s voice. I know we are fortunate that he can speak at all and that has always made me long for the chance to have a conversation with him. A few years back, I even wrote an imaginary Christmas morning dialog with him (“Merry Christmas, Daddy!” An Imagined Conversation with My Son). Alas, that amazing gift has yet to be unwrapped.

The one beautiful thing about Mikey’s echolalia, is that it has always included singing. That’s what inspired me to call him my songbird and what led to the original blog post that my personal blog is named for (My Songbird Sings The Truth). His singing voice is delicate, touching, and powerful. It’s as if he’s trying to break through all the limits that echolalia and autism put on him through whatever song has filled his head that day. I’ve noticed more singing lately…I hope that is an encouraging sign.

Recently, there have been other signs of encouragement. Whether consciously or not, Mikey has been using echolalia in an appropriate way, from time to time. Like when we tell him to say hello to people, he has chosen, “Hello, guys” from his cartoon repertoire. Our little songbird is mimicking more of the right sounds. If this all leads to regular, original words, well, I won’t even mind if they are spoken in Spongebob’s tone of voice.

Hmmm, okay, maybe not Spongebob.

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