Katie Vahey Gaebler
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
One of the early signs of Bryson’s form of autism was his repetitive speech, also known as echolalia. Echolalia, as a form of imitation, is common in young children learning to speak. It is a useful, normal, and necessary component of social learning. Bryson actually picked up language especially young. I recall celebrating the Christmas holidays a month before he turned 1 year old, and he was speaking with my in-laws in (fragmented) sentences. (This seems especially unique to me now that Wesley is 18 months old and mostly babbles as communication.) When we started working with the first social worker we were assigned through KidsConnect, B was about 2 years old at the time, she pointed out how he was using echolalia. She stressed it was common for young kids, but she pointed out the frequency and extent he was using it. In all the assessments we completed for B’s various therapies and to obtain his diagnosis, echolalia is one among various characteristics that he scores consistently high as a symptom toward autism.
Wikipedia defines echolalia as he unsolicited repetition of vocalizations made by another person. Echolalia can be an indicator of communication disorders in autism, but is neither unique to, nor synonymous with syndromes. It is estimated that up to 75% of people on the autism spectrum have exhibited echolalia. A symptom of some children with ASD is the struggle to produce spontaneous speech. Studies have shown that in some cases echolalia is used as a coping mechanism allowing a person with autism to contribute to a conversation when unable to produce spontaneous speech.
Before we understood echolalia or any other of B’s characteristics that lead to his diagnosis, we just figured he had a good memory. And he does, able to repeat things he hear weeks after we’ve discussed something, and quoting books and things he hears on TV, effortlessly. This actually runs in John’s family. One of my favorite stories about my sister-in-law is that when she was in veterinary school, she would skip class as she had access to audio of the lecture. As she drove Illinois and Wisconsin’s country roads, she listened to the audio on double speed, and had an ability to ace a quiz on the content. She’s an intense personality, smart and highly accountable while maintaining a laid back casual shell. She can power through books, while having an ability to quote facts and figures effortless (and actually quite humble). If a good memory can run in a family, those are the genes I hope my son got.
While B does have a good memory, more than that, his echolalia is undeniable. At age 6 ½, by now he would have grown out using it the way young kids do when they are first learning to talk. He has rotated through a variety of favorite cartoons (always science or technology related), and currently at the top of his list is Inspector Gadget (both the current Netflix version, and the 80’s version found on YouTube). He mostly self-regulates screen time, as he prefers engaging with people in person on his favorite topics. He loves to play “Inspector Gadget” and typically chooses to be himself while delegating character roles to the people around him. He quotes the show endlessly, and wants other people around him too as well. (My favorite character to play is MadCat, since mostly I can reply with “meow.”) He always wants to capture Gadget, and probably 300 time per day I’ll hear him says “to the lair in HQ!” and “Next time, Gadget, next time.” When he needs to make a mad dash for something, he will first strike a pose with his arms swung to one side and his knee up, as if a cartoon character was about to make a mad dash, before he bolts to his preferred location. There are moments this is a little exhausting as his parent, never ceasing in his role-play games. But it’s also so endearing, so Bryson, of him to never end his games of make-believe as if he is living his favorite cartoon. I know this is part of how he is learning to be in the world.
He has struggled to make friends, as much as he is extroverted and craves in person companionship, although now there are 1-2 kiddos that live in our neighborhood where there seems to be mutual enjoyment in their play. He tends to be bossy and aggressive in his play style, and his constant repetitiveness can be a little confusing and overwhelming if you don’t know his background. But when he can draw from his memory and use quotes in a context that always him to interact positively with other people, he is in his element, and frankly he can be funny and charming.
Echolalia is one of the characteristics that lead to our autism diagnosis I really haven’t worried about compared to others. In future posts I’ll write about sensory diets, managing stimuli, and gut metabolism. I’ve written about a day of extreme elopement, as that is one of the scariest facets of B’s version of autism, I’m regularly in fear for his safety and his liability in this area is often the reason schools and care settings have been challenged with him. But what I want to highlight here is that while echolalia is a clear characteristic, I hope (and do believe) he can use that to his advantage as he continues through school and life. If he can easily recall quotes from interpersonal conversations and lectures he hears, he could use that as a tremendous advantage. From my research so far, autism can have a slippery slope of deficits and benefits.