Have a Written Conversation for Echolalia in Autism

Echolalia in autism causes confusion for communication partners.

Autism and echolalia. Some children with autism or Asperger’s speak with echolalia which causes huge communication problems.

I received a question recently about a boy on the autism spectrum who spoke with a lot of echolalia.  He also demonstrated a lot of behavior challenges related to schedule activities.  The combination of these two issues made a lot of sense to me.

What is echolalia?
When a student repeats language they have heard, it is sometimes described as “echoing.”  It can be immediate echolalia which means the student repeats what you just said to him, or it can be delayed.  Delayed echolalia is when the student repeats language that he has heard before.  It might be something from a former conversation or it could be language from a favorite video game or a TV show or movie.

Many children will go through a “stage” of echolalia during typical language development.  Usually, that stage disappears pretty quickly as the child learns more vocabulary and language skills to communicate.

What about echolalia and autism?
Some children on the autism spectrum may use echolalia differently.  Their echolalia occurs with greater frequency and lasts for a longer period of time. Sometimes people view echolalia as a bad or negative behavior. But it can actually be a positive thing on the way toward developing more effective communication skills.

Here’s the point
The point is that students who speak with echolalia are attempting to communicate. They are participating in the conversation, however, they may not be able to retrieve vocabulary or process information in ways that allow them to use their language in a “more conventional” way.

Their echolalic language may not accomplish exactly what they want to communicate.  That’s why it doesn’t surprise me that the boy in the question above also had some behavior problems. His communication is not working well for him.

There’s a lot to understand about echolalia, but there are also some easy visual strategies to use that can help that student.

Try having a written conversation
I LOVE having written conversations with students. This style of communication has helped me get to know students on a more personal level. It’s fun. It’s interactive. And it teaches students the power of written language in a way that is different from our traditional literacy training.

A written conversation is exactly what it sounds like.  Instead of just talking, you use a pencil and paper or a computer to extend what you are saying with your mouth.  I think that the combination of  talking and writing it down can provide a perfect opportunity for better conversation skills to emerge.

Written conversations are particularly helpful for:

  1. Encouraging extended social interaction This is a perfect activity for social conversation when you have some time to “sit and chat.” The written interactions will help extend the social interaction time.Written conversations are a way of helping the student learn to communicate more information about a topic. They encourage more balanced turn taking between the student and his communication partner.
  2. Clarifying communication and expanding the amount of information shared.Written communication provides the opportunity to go back and re-read or repeat. This format helps clarify understandings or misunderstandings. It is a tool to teach more vocabulary and help students express themselves more effectively.

What reading level do students need to participate in written conversations?
Students do not have to be highly skilled readers. They do need to have some interest in the written word.

Literacy for communication is different from the reading and writing that are a part of traditional academic programs. Students tend to comprehend written conversations in a different way than academic reading because they are interactive and they are about the student’s personal life.

Exactly how do you have a written conversation?
This is not difficult to do. There are many different ways that this activity can be structured so the students will benefit. It does not need to be complicated. Consider these options:

  1. Use pencil and paper, a computer or cards with words already written on them.
  2. Try to engage in simultaneous communication. Write down what you say. Ask questions, give information, or whatever communication you need to engage in. Just write it down, too.
  3. If the student has some ability with written language, encourage him to take his turn in writing. Students frequently love engaging in this type of activity on the computer because they love computers. Don’t worry about things like spelling or complete sentences. Just focus on the ideas that are communicated.
  4. If the student can’t generate enough written language, try writing down some choices to give him an opportunity to choose an answer.
  5. Try fill-in-the-blank type sentences to provide the structure to get more information.
  6. Don’t forget that drawing simple pictures can help communicate that written message. Pictures work for those students who don’t read yet. They also enhance conversations for students who do read.

When do you recommend using this technique?
Fit it in when you have a little bit of time. This is a technique that you can use for one-minute connections or half-hour interactions. Use it for big things but don’t forget to use it for little ones, too. Keep a pencil & paper handy for spontaneous conversations.

Here’s an example
PROBLEM: Dennis walked into the room with a huge bandage on his finger. The teacher was trying to find out what had happened, however, Dennis was reciting commercials and was not giving adequate information.

CAUSE: Although Dennis can talk, he has a difficult time relaying specific information. He talks with a lot of delayed echolalia, but there is little content.

SOLUTION: Engage Dennis in a written conversation in an attempt to get more information. After getting the information in writing, it will be possible to

  • Write it in a story form
  • Keep the written conversation so Dennis can go back to read it later
  • Use the written information to prompt a verbal conversation about the event

Here’s another example

Lee stayed home from school and the teacher was trying to get more information.

 

Written conversations are slow
I once had a workshop participant complain that writing things down takes too much time. I responded by telling her that is exactly the point!

Our world moves quickly. Sometimes busyness and distractions in classroom or home environments impair good communication. What can help? Try having a written conversation.

They take more time than verbal exchanges. That is one of the reasons they are successful for our targeted students. They allow a student to utilize his visual strengths. The slower pace gives him the time he needs to process the information and retrieve the language he needs.

This is not an activity for all students.
Some will be too young and others disinterested. However, you may be surprised by the interest some students show for this type of communication interaction. Remember, it is visual!

Consider engaging in written conversations with students who demonstrate an interest and awareness of the printed word. Let the student’s interest and participation determine how this strategy is used.

Here’s an Idea
I remember getting into trouble in elementary school because I was writing notes to my friends. That was considered bad.

Let’s change the way we think. Note writing is good! Teach students to write notes to each other. It is a unique way to promote social interaction in a format that many of our targeted students have the potential to be successful.

P.S.  Keep your written conversations in a binder or notebook.  You’ll be surprised how you can go back to refer to a previous conversation.  I have had students who love to “read” their old conversations like reading a book. It’s a different way to build language and memory skills.

P.P.S. Perseveration is another common communication behavior for neurodiverse students. Perseveration is when the student says the same things or asks the same questions over and over.

That’s a topic for another blog post, but for now, keep in mind that these written conversations work really well for responding to students who do a lot of repeating information or repeating questions.

Just remember that the student is attempting to engage you and have a conversation. Ignoring them is not a good teaching strategy. Instead, teaching them to take their turn in a variety of ways helps them learn to be more effective in their attempts to interact with you.

 


 

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  1. Thanks for describing this interesting approach to conversation with echolalic children. Since many are also hyperlexic, print can certainly help direct their attention. My therapy with echolalic autistic children has focused heavily on language modeling prior to conversation, but visual supports are always helpful with autism and I too have used written choices and finish-the-sentence techniques. For those who are also blind, tactile cues replace the visual ones.
    A fascinating and rewarding group of children!

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