Teaching Students with Echolalia
Talking to someone who repeats back everything that you say is tough.
Teaching them is tougher… so what can you do when you are teaching students with Echolalia and Autism?
Read on, and be sure to get your free printable!
Picture this… me teaching in elementary school during the early years of my career. I came out of alternative certification and had no idea about really working with students who have profound and severe disabilities. The section on those kids is super short… and really impractical, so I was winging it. Meet Johnny (not his real name) who was a very classically Autistic kid with severe social and communication deficits. He was smart, sometimes violent… and he educated me on Autism in a very hands on way. So, this was our snack time in the beginning:
Me: “Johnny, what do you want for snack?”
Me: “Johnny, do you want an apple or cookies?”
Me: “Johnny, do you want cookies?”
Me: “Here Johnny, here’s your cookies.”
Johnny: Throws cookies all over the place and proceeds to flip the table.
Sound familiar? If you are teaching in an Autism unit I know you have been there. So what do you do? How do you even start? First, what is Echolalia?
What is Echolalia?
I always caution the teachers that I work with to presume competence above all else, and sometimes that can be tough when you feel like you’re talking to yourself. But the truth is that students who are echoing your speech are really trying to communicate, they just are not progressing as fast as some other kids.
Think back to the days when your kids were little… how did they start in their language acquisition? If you can remember, then you know exactly what Echolalia is. Simply put, Echolalia is when a person repeats what was just said.
Good news is your student is talking! And the process of language development includes echolalic speech. My grandson is 2 years old and repeating things that people say all the time. His delayed echolalic phrase is “whoa”. He says it for everything. It is totally a normal part of speech development. But when you are teaching students with Echolalia, you have to be more intentional on moving them past that stage.
Types of Echolalia: Immediate vs. Delayed Echolalia
Immediate Echolalia looks something like this:
Me: “Johnny, do you want to take a break? Yes or no?”
Johnny: “Yes or No.”
It is a part of the speech he was just receiving and is repeated in the moment.
Delayed Echolalia is a little different. A student is repeating back something they have heard previously. Sometimes that is a certain phrase or sound and sometimes it can be repeated lines from a some of movie. Delayed Echolalia looks something like this:
Me: “Johnny, do you want to take a break? Yes or no?”
Johnny: “And now a word from our sponsors…”
What’s the difference for you? The two responses sometimes mean two different things. With Immediate Echolalia, a student is aware they should be responding and they have something they want to say/share, but are unable to make that happen- not necessarily because they do not have the words, but because they cannot get them out.
They may need language modeled for them and benefit from scripting.
A student who is delayed in their Echolalia may not have the words at all. Instead they are using language that was heard when they were happy or sad or eating a taco as a means to capture that desire or emotions. I think of it like Bumblebee from Transformers. He was not interested in Sexual Healing with Sam, but when he played that song it had an implied meaning.
With this type of student, there may be an inability to find and effectively use words.
So What Do I Do?
There are several strategies you can use when teaching a students with Echolalia.
1. Sentence Stems.
In this model, you stop asking a student “Do you want…?” questions and stop asking Yes or No questions. Instead you will use sentence stems to get a students to respond by prompting with “I want ____.” and wait for a response.
This requires two things: A lot of wait time (and you can read more about that here), and assurance that a student has the language needed to respond. If they are missing the vocabulary to answer, you may have to pair this sentence stem system with a visual icon. This is the basis for PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). You can read more about this system here.
This is another great way to implement somewhat authentic conversation with students as part of good social skills instruction. Getting a student to interact, even scripted, through some basic social situation will help those students who know what they want to say but can’t and also those who know how they feel, but can’t find the word. I used to use a scripting sequence that looked like this:
Me: “Good morning Johnny.”
Johnny: “Good morning Mrs. Noodle.”
Me: “How are you today?”
Johnny: “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”
Me: “I’m great, thanks for asking.”
Johnny: “Okay. Talk to you later.”
At least in this situation he could interact in a way that moved beyond the echo and was socially appropriate.
Want a FREEBIE to support this? Download my Talking Bubbles tool HERE. Laminate the pages or put them in sheet protectors and write what you want each person to say in your sequence. Then practice, practice, practice!
Need more? Try this Sentence Stem tool >HERE< which gives you visual scripting and is already designed… you just need to implement it (download the Preview for a Freebie). The most important thing is to model it with a student and then staying consistent.
SOCIAL STORIES FOR STUDENTS WITH AUTISM
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3. Pair Preferred with Non-Preferred
So this one is a great starting point. When you are offering choice, be mindful of how you order your choices. Granted, this model can get you slapped, but is does work over time. It looks something like this.
Me: “Johnny, do you want chocolate or salad?”
(The student hates salad and would rather die than eat it. The chocolate is preferred.)
( I give the student the salad as requested. Insert me ducking to avoid a flying table here.)
Me: “Johnny, do you want chocolate or salad? Chocolate”
(I may model here what the response should be to get the item he wants by saying ‘chocolate’ through a few trials so he has heard the appropriate way to answer.”
(I give Johnny the chocolate but start to fade the prompt).
Me: “Johnny, do you want chocolate or salad? I want…”
(I may steal my sentence stem method and adapt it to use it here.)
Offering Choice and Voice is so important- and with this method we move away from the adult deciding for the student because they are Echolalic.
4. Teach “I don’t know.”
So this one is to teach a response that is not an echo. Here, when you ask a student a question (preferably one they legitimately don’t know), you would ask the question and then end it with “I don’t know”. Here’s what that looks like:
Me: “Johnny, what are the ingredients in chocolate? I don’t know.”
Johnny: “Don’t know.”
What this does is normalize the response so it feels more like how a non-disabled peer may respond. (I know my 16 year old says “I dunno” a lot!) You would fade the prompt over time and also pair this type of question with ones Johnny does know so he does not generalize that response over all questions.
Okay… Do You Got It? Got It!
If you take the time to model and script social interactions, use sentence stems or a PECS system paired with oral language, as well as pair preferred with non-preferred, you will start to see a change in Echolalic behavior over time. Remember to be consistent, to allow extra wait time, and to practice, practice, practice!
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