Once upon a time, there was a toddler named Gray. Like his baby friends, Gray was growing, learning and beginning to develop language. At his well-baby doctor’s appointments, his proud mommy told the doctor things like, “Yes, he is starting to talk!” and “Oh yes, he definitely has at least 50 words. Probably more!”
No one told Gray’s mommy that not all of his words should be nouns. While Gray was excellent at labeling things (ball! dog! cup!), he didn’t use pronouns, adjectives or verbs. He didn’t use any relational words and wouldn’t greet people, look them in the eye or engage without great difficulty.
His mommy noticed this, and was a little concerned, but not overly upset. She did realize he was different from most of the peers in his toddler play group, and it was a little worrying. Still, the baby development books stress that everyone develops in their own time, not to compare your children, and the pediatrician said he was doing great, so she mostly put it out of her mind.
Like his friends, Gray began using phrases right on schedule. But rather than original thoughts, he repeated phrases he’d heard others say or just used nonsensical phrases. The same phrases, over and over and over again. Sometimes thousands of times a day.
One of his favorite phrases was, “Do you hear a dog, Mommy? Do you hear a dog?” He would follow his mommy around repeating this all day long, until she would cry with frustration. Nothing she said would make him stop. And, for the record, she didn’t hear a dog. She was pregnant, sick, tired and rapidly becoming more than a little concerned about her beautiful, perplexing son.
This was the start of echolalia:
Echolalia (also known as echologia or echophrasia) is defined as the unsolicited repetition of vocalizations made by another person (by the same person is called palilalia). In its profound form it is automatic and effortless. It is one of the echophenomena, closely related to echopraxia, the automatic repetition of movements made by another person; both are “subsets of imitative behavior” whereby sounds or actions are imitated “without explicit awareness”. Echolalia may be an immediate reaction to a stimulus or may be delayed.
And echolalia can drive you mad. Living with someone with echolalia can leave you feeling a bit like you’ve fallen through the rabbit hole. Nothing makes sense, and nothing can stop the person who is echolaic. It is out of everyone’s control, and it will leave you in tears. A lot.
It didn’t matter how I answered Gray, or whether I answered him at all. He didn’t acknowledge anything I said, but continued asking “Do you hear a dog, Mommy? Do you hear a dog?” Relentlessly. After a couple of weeks, I would have confessed to ANYTHING to make him stop. But it went on for months.
Eventually, Gray stopped asking if I heard a dog, but he developed other echolaic patterns. His speech was very atypical, he repeated other people, phrases he’d heard on TV, and noises. Especially high-pitched, beeping noises. And this was all a few years before he was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, so we really didn’t understand what was happening.I knew he definitely wasn’t like most of the other toddlers we knew, but he was my beautiful, wonderful boy and so I stuffed my fears in a box and went on with life.
Finally, he was diagnosed with autism, and the years of therapy began. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, social skills and special education classes became our new normal. We learned how to help him in a way that he could understand and deal with. And he truly began to blossom.
Someone suggested that drama could be helpful in learning social skills and more typical speech patterns, so we found a week-long drama day camp and enrolled him. He loved it! He had no fear of performing or public speaking, and coaches loved him because he never, ever forgot a line (autism does have a few advantages!). And it really did help him. He continued to be involved in drama and musical theater for quite a while, and it was a joy to see him perform.
A couple of years into therapy, when things were much better, Gray approached me one day and asked, “Do you hear a dog, Mommy?” My heart plummeted, and I think my knees actually buckled. I was panicking at the prospect of returning to the constant repetition. And then, I realized that one of the neighbor’s dogs was actually barking. It was a legit question!
I think I was both laughing and crying as I replied, “YES! Yes, I do hear a dog, Gray. I really, really do hear a dog. Isn’t that great?” He gave me a concerned look and walked away, shaking his head at his wacky and perplexing mom.