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Echolalia and Autism: Why Does My Child Sound Like a TV Show?

By January 30, 2008

When Tommy was 3, 4, and 5 years old he was verbal. In fact, he was very verbal. Of course, most of his language consisted of bits and pieces of scripts from his favorite TV shows - Thomas the Tank Engine, Theodore Tugboat, and so forth. Even when he used his own words, he used them in exactly the same order - with exactly the same intonation - over and over again. We called it video talk.

Because he really WAS verbal, used multi-word sentences, knew his ABC's, and was affectionate, it never occured to us that he could be autistic. Even when preschool teachers brought our attention to Tom's differences, we were reassured by the pediatric guidelines for speech development and by the guidelines for diagnosing autism.

In fact, though, memorized speech, also called "echolalia," is extremely common among children with autism. The bad news is, echolalia is not a typical way to learn language. The good news is, it's a great place to start.

By the way - I can vouch for the fact that "video talk" can reflect real understanding. When Tom was 4, we took him to Maine. There, he was able to accurately identify and describe research vessels, fishing vessels, lobster boats, container ships and schooners - all by reciting bits and pieces of script from the Canadian educational program Theodore Tugboat, which is based on shipping in Halifax harbor, Nova Scotia. Who knew?!

Find out more about echolalia and autism - and share your own experiences with

Comments
January 30, 2008 at 6:20 pm
(1) Leila says:

My 4-year-old son is now starting to change words on his scripts (modifying the subject and verbs according to the situation). The other day he was saying the Kipper the Dog show song, but instead of singing “would you like a dog like Kipper”, he sang “would you like cars like Christopher”. I think that’s a good sign too… But I SO can’t wait until he’s fully verbal. Sometimes I’m afraid it will never happen.

January 30, 2008 at 6:57 pm
(2) autism says:

Leila – though of course no one can make any promises, it sounds like your son is definitely on the right track. It comes slowly, but it does come!

Tommy is still idiosyncratic in his speech, he’s now able to carry on real conversations with people – and add his thoughts and ideas to conversations, write about books he’s read, even write stories from someone else’s perspective.

The funny thing is, after he more or less finished reciting as a mode of communication (he still does it under his breath sometimes to calm himself), he invented some pretend friends to hang out with. Much of the time, now, he talks in the “voices” of his friend Lizard (a little plastic toy). Lizard has almost become Tom’s alter ego, and he (Lizard) seems much better able to care for and about others than Tommy!

Amazing stuff.

Lisa (autism guide)

January 30, 2008 at 7:07 pm
(3) sherri says:

Lisa,
I agree with everything you said.
Our son also has an imaginary friend, his name is TOMMY! LOL

sherri

January 30, 2008 at 8:42 pm
(4) Sandy says:

My son started verbalizing and echolalia at a later age, and he was the child he repeated the last of what he heard. My son however was not and still isn’t that affectionate child. Autism very much is a disorder involving language and how a child with autism uses it. My kid made up his own words and somewhere in his brain, it just didn’t mingle for the momma to understand him. It took a well trained speech therapist to detect that “dkfdfjfk mvvml” was actually a 3 word sentence. I was like yea…. but that 3 word sentence was echolalia LOL!

My most funniest autism movie recital is Charlie Brown, missing the football as Lucy so meaning takes it away just as he get’s there, and poor Charlie falling on his back. This was right up the alley of a little pressure seeker boy! This is also as close to sports as my kid has ever gotten :) My son also has verbal stims with words starting with the letter P. He also picks up some interesting commercials to chant.

In any event- as long as a child has some words or attempts to form words, there is such great hope. It does take a lot of battling of the wits to get a child to pronounce words properly than how they think it’s suppose to be, and to get full functional sentences with comprehension. They say for the child that speaks in lets say 1 words sentences, that child should be spoken to in 2 word sentences, and you add to the sentence as the child adds to theirs. This was true for my child. He only heard the last of what was said if it was too long, when people spoke to him they had better included the most important things at the end of what they said or my kid never heard you at all. My son also needs verbal directions not to be of a sweet momma voice. those emotions through language simple throws him into confusion. He needs the monotone just as he speaks it, he needs it verbally spoken to him as well.

On a side note, being a parent of a non verbal child, you’re on an emotional roller coaster. You work so hard and want nothing more than to hear words than crying and growling. Then finally, there are words but of course mommy is the last word ever learned. Then before you know it, you’re emotions change and you start to dread the echolalia and just what might come out of that kids mouth that is quite inappropriate! My kid learned the word hate, and that’s all he said: hate hate hate hate over and over and over. So then your emotions change to trying to teach word comprehension LOL! A few grandma’s were starting to wonder if he really didn’t like them :)

January 30, 2008 at 8:47 pm
(5) AspieMama says:

My sister and I used to quote Disney movies endlessly when we were young! We even divided up the parts and would repeat the dialogue. I thought it was really fun, but I don’t know if it drove my parents crazy. :) In high school, I loved to memorize poetry, parts of plays, etc. and was really proud of my ability to memorize. I never really thought about this being echololia? I guess it could be.

AspieMama

~A Blog for Parents with Asperger’s~
http://aspiemama.blogspot.com/

Some new posts: “Mom w/Aspergerís Has Baby Taken Away” and Childbirth Class DVD Review

January 31, 2008 at 6:13 am
(6) Rob Barber says:

It’s got to the point in my house where If you can’t beat em, join them.

It started off with skits from the Simpsons and bits of the Star Wars, It’s now developed into the Mighty Boosh! The eldest has told me he is “Old Greg” so much I’m starting to believe him and “Top Shop” is driving me nuts.

I’m not surprised however that the lads have started this. I’m not on the Spectrum but used to know the entire scripts of the original Star Wars Trilogy and even more so “The Wrath of Khan”

February 2, 2008 at 3:20 am
(7) julie says:

yes…echolalic over here with autism meant repeating back what was just heard.
i always defended him as he needed to check waht he heard and give himself time to process waht was said befor he could give an answer..in counselling they call it reflecting.
but we found out later he sometimes had intermittant hearing giving cause and reason for echolalia…video talk came later and we gave him certificates for good recital if we new where he was coming from.

October 26, 2009 at 10:19 am
(8) moon says:

my son taught himself to speak by this practice of echoing…he speaks just fine now!…
i thought it rather ingenious of him to find a way to communicate using phrases from his favorite movies..
we use this ability of ‘copying’ in homeschool now…
for example, math lessons online…a talking calculator program…learning to read by leaving the closed caption function active during watching children’s educational programs

October 26, 2009 at 11:53 am
(9) kim says:

My daughter, now 10 years old, only spoke memorized phrases starting around 18 months or so. But since she could talk, her pediatrician said that there wasn’t a problem! She also spun alot, arm flapped and would not even respond to her name! At one point, her phrases were mostly Spanish (she loved Dora). Her tone was identical to all the characters that she was echoing. Eventualy, she branched out to: referring to anything red as “muck” as in “I want the muck popsicle” or I want the “lofty” crayon (from bob the builder) or the “james” from thomas the tank. My daughter now can not stop talking!! When her teachers tell me she is sometimes too chatty, I have to tell them that this is a child who didn’t speak at all and when she finally did, it was all echolalia! They are amazed. Her play though, is still alot of mimicry. She will reenact some of the shows with her figures and also, if she plays something, it has to be the SAME WAY next time, no variation. On the downside she likes shows like ICarly, the kids are sarcastic and sometimes very rude, my daughter thinks that because they act like that; she should act like that too. Baby steps, I suppose, but I am so grateful to able to say that at 10 years old she is leaps and bounds from where she was (thanks to alot of speech & OT, and oh yeah a new pediatrician).

February 15, 2011 at 3:00 pm
(10) Jamie says:

This brought me to tears…My son has just turned 4 years old and he does flap his hands, spins alot and has all the “signs” on the autism spectrum. His first screening apt is monday. I had no clue this entire time it was anything but possible speech delay…He repeats EVERYTHING he hears from movies & commercials…and uses them in day to day life…Like when we are leaving he will tell someone “bye Nemo! , Bye son have fun!” he has always done this and i didnt know why! I have been so upset and stressed for weeks when i came across an article that was exactly his description of his actions and they called it a form of autism…ive been so confused…reading that your daughter did those things and is now doing so great both brings tears, and a smile to my face. I only hope for such a great outcome for my beautiful lil boy.

October 26, 2009 at 11:59 am
(11) autism says:

Kim – I don’t think autistic kids are alone in imitating the really nasty behaviors of some of the characters in Nick and Disney sitcoms. IMHO, it’s up to parents to spend some time watching WITH kids and discussing what’s ok and what’s not.

BTW, iCarly is a bit odd anyway: these two kids live on their own? What happened to the parents? And so forth…

Kid fantasy, I guess!!

Lisa

October 26, 2009 at 5:49 pm
(12) Kate says:

Our son, 7, doesn’t just repeat things out loud, he also writes them! He *loves* Charlie Brown, and he will write out the entire letter to the Great Pumpkin. It’s rather cute and funny, although I do also wish he would start speaking in more “authentic” speech. But considering he didn’t start talking until he was almost 3 and now he’s starting to answer questions (a new development since the new school year), I can’t complain. We’re getting there, slowly but surely.

October 27, 2009 at 8:49 am
(13) Julie says:

My son picked up a lot of phrases from TV and from us too. His first phrase was “uh uh uh – no no no” which he got from me when he was going through the toddler/exploring stage. But I was very relieved to see that the ones he got from TV he used spontaneously and appropriately. For example, when he was 4 my husband put him up on a tree that had fallen over behind our house and he said “Bloody Hell” – thank you Ron Weasley! But he did pick up some not-so-nice language from Charlie Brown and we learned to monitor the language content of what he watches. I saw Dora mentioned in another post. We brought my son up a mountain, he looked down, and started yelling the spanish word for “help”. Totally appropriate – if we’d been in Mexico ;-)

Because he can use the phrases appropriately, I don’t have a problem with it. We’ve even had some success at using scripted phrases to get us through difficult times or disappointments – “Oh well, maybe next time” worked fairly well. But at school meetings, his “scripting” often comes up – he verbally stims and he’s very vocal about his imaginary world and has trouble controlling it. What they don’t understand, because they don’t listen well enough or aren’t familiar with childrens programming, is that he is using what he sees as a base for his imagination, but very little of what he says is actually quotes. He often mixes up two or three shows together – I’m thinking he got the idea from movies like Mickey’s Three Musketeers – so he’ll have a scenerio from one show, but characters from Scooby Doo and SpongeBob will be there too. It got to the point where I almost gave up trying to engage with him when he does this, but then I read The Challenging Child by Dr. Greenspan and skipped right to the chapter on children (not necessarily autistic, but not necessarily NT either) who are caught up in their own fantasy world. A couple of pointers I picked up from that chapter was that these stories should have a logical foundation – a beginning, middle, and end, and that if the child wants to imagine being in the time of the dinosaurs (my example), he needs a logical way of getting there; a time machine, a time portal, or going to Jurassic Park. My son was playing the other day when I called to him. I actually heard him wrap it up – this happens, then that happens, “the end” and then he came running! I was very pleased that he’s doing it on his own now.

My son was very stuck on Star Wars for several years, but over the last year his interest has been on wars; namely World War II and the Civil War. One day he was at school and talking about war (which is discouraged because of the violence) and he said the Japanese were in the Atlantic. I talked to his special ed teacher later and suggested that instead of re-directing, how about pointing out that the Japanese didn’t belong in the Atlantic? Encouraging him to base his play on reality is crucial. I’m not really upset by this interest because he’s gone from perseverating on a fictional story (Star Wars) to something that is a real – war. He’s still about 30 – 60 years in the past (he is interested in Vietnam too and I don’t encourage a lot of “play” on the current wars because I’m afraid he’ll say or do something insensitive in public), but I’m hopeful he is slowly and surely making his way to the present reality. He’s only 7. We’ll see.

October 27, 2009 at 9:02 am
(14) Lisa Jo says:

Omigosh, Julie, your son sounds SO MUCH like my Tom! What just honks me off so much about the teaching system (and a big reason for homeschooling) is the INCREDIBLE lack of imagination.

Instead of seeing strengths (your son gets it that there was a Japanese navy fighting against the US during the second world war!!) they see weaknesses (he’s scripting: this must be stopped). How many seven year olds even know there WAS a world war two, let alone take the time out to learn about it?!

Bleh. Now that I think about it, I realize that it’s incredible lack of imagination and openness to the breadth of how people think that gets under my skin.

Not everyone is good at sitting nicely in a room with 30 peers and processing spoken verbal language quickly. Does that make them incompetent human beings??

BTW – we have worked on the beginning/middle/end thing with Tom a lot. He’s now 13, and writes some wonderful short fiction that has logic and sense to it. He also has a vast collection of fictional beings who help him out as he navigates the world.

Lisa

October 27, 2009 at 9:28 am
(15) kim says:

Lisa,
I agree with you, parents do need to watch with their children. My daughter and I discuss television characters behavior, it is a great stepping off point.
Sometimes too, I will dvr american idol (so we can watch it together without the inappropriate commercials) so that she will be able to have conversations at school about current and age appropriate programming. For the most part though now, unfortunately, she is totally into Pokemon (UGHHH), kind of makes me long for spongebob and fairly oddparents again! She also likes to read (to the extreme). She is loves the Warrior series, about a clan of cats & the Redwall series. It is interesting how sometimes I will try to explain something to her and she will tell me “I get it, it’s kind of like when the cat in my book does that”. Again, not original thinking, but useful at times.
kim

October 27, 2009 at 9:35 am
(16) Lisa Jo says:

Kim – your daughter sounds wonderful.

Re “kinda like the cat in the book” thinking, IMHO that’s exactly what you’re looking for – the ability to relate past experience to the present and to act accordingly.

Lisa

October 27, 2009 at 3:48 pm
(17) Kristine says:

The way i figure it is as long as my son is speaking…….. whether through echos or even to me it sure beats no words at all.One thing that helped my son was allowing him use of the DVD remote and letting him “earn” time to watch and stop/pause his shows–two years later he is now speaking to us and has an increased vocabulary.If your nerves can stand it ….. allow it — the aggravation/benefits were totally worth it in the long run.

October 28, 2009 at 6:46 am
(18) corrinne says:

i read these articles everyday learn that most of my fellow parents with autistic kids have learnt to speak and am happy for them. my four year old son doesnt talk just jibberish, nothing that makes sense. on the other hand i know that children are different with their own different personalities.i cant wait for the day he will talk coz i will be the happiest mother on the world.

January 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm
(19) Becky says:

Hi I have a son who is about to be 16 the middle of february and has been treated for adhd and pdd since he was 3 he also was diagnosed with tourettes at the age of 7. I am not sure its tourettes at all.. he has melt downs,, big time. over the simplest things. He has echolalia very bad, he repeats things he hears on the radio and tv repeatedly it can be out loud or whispering it to his self.. example,, he was watching titainic when it first came out,, he was very young and he would sit there after and during the movie and repeat everything he heard over and over again,, until it became a whisper to himself,, he watched a pokemon show one day at he kept saying pokemon mon mon mon mon,, also oen day he got out of bed and all through the house you could here him saying its 859 859 859 859 ,,, obviously thats what time the clock said when he looked at it.. when he was between 3 -7 he had issues with clothes pulling,, throat clearing, eye blinking and many other little tics. He is totally infatuated with yugio cards and can tell you everything about them,, they pretty much are his life. he will get very upset and have a melt down if something happens to his yugio cards. He does not sleep at night without the aid of meds,, and hasnt been able to sleep since he was younger than two. he does not do well in social siutations,, I am embarrassed to take him out to eat,, his table manners are horribble and he has been taught better,, in school the teachers are at their wits end with him. his hand writing is like that of a 2nd grader.. he does things he knows he should not do.. and does not think of the cosnequences he will face. A far as socializing goes,, he cannot keep a friend for long and when he does get a freind he does not seem to be able to pick one that is not a trouble maker.. I dont know what to do ,, all his past friends since he was maybe 10 yrs old have been awful,, I guess he just wants to belong and have ferinds so much he cant see the abd in them.. lately he got involved with some kids that are on the other side of the law and even though he was warned he kept saying they were his freinds. he is to trusting of people and is more of a follower than a leader. I am so afraid he is going to end up in jail for something because of his trust for anyone he hangs out with. recently his docs mentioned that he may have aspbergers and not adhd.. and that he does have tourettes but a lot of his tics are like the aspbergers ones,, I am just really lost as to what to think right now.. please if you can help or tell me if he sounds like he has aspbergers I would appreciate it ..

February 5, 2011 at 4:14 am
(20) joy says:

my son is in the process of being observed, speech therapy etc, i have feared autism from an early age but because he is not 3 yet no diagnosis has been given. he recites adverts, repeats the last word spoken to him, i have noticed him flapping his hands more than usual over the last 2 weeks. its such a long drawn out process.

May 31, 2011 at 12:11 pm
(21) Ann says:

I think it is really important if your child has echolalia & sensory issues (especially regarding repeating of computer & TV shows) to remove this electronic media from your child’s life. It may seem hard since they are often addicted to it (and we as parents are often addicted as well), but in the end it has really helped social and language acquisition for my 5 year old son. The reduction in echolalia is marked since the TV was removed from our house, and access to computer. I know he was at a home daycare that had the TV on a lot and it was not helpful for his echolalia. He is also in a Waldorf (whole child) style kindergarden and is playing with the first time with his peers. His imagination and sense of the outside world (one outside of a screen) is developing. He was very good on computers, but I think that this can develop later…at this age I really think that social skills/language skills are the most important things to focus on developing. Get them outside, interacting with the nature world, have them help with daily chores as much as they are able, engage them in the cycle of life…and take the screen time away. I really have come to believe it is crucial.

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