Before Cuddlebug and Bearhug were diagnosed with autism, I had never heard of echolalia. Cuddlebug in particular had a habit of frequently repeating back the last thing we said, and except when it was obvious that his response didn't make sense, I just took it at face value as a response. (I learned the hard way that's not always a great idea, misinterpreting a response can lead to a meltdown!)
It wasn't until the pediatric neurologist evaluating the boys actually asked me if they answered yes/no questions that I realized they didn't. As a therapist later told me, it's easier to notice unusual behavior that is present than it is to notice "typical" behavior that is absent.
So after all these years I feel I understand echolalia a bit better, but I still struggle to interpret it sometimes. When Bitty repeats back something I just said, is he answering in the affirmative, or is he just repeating? Sometimes he'll repeat it back with a "no" in front of it and then I know he's answering in the negative.
Me: "Bitty, are you ready for a bath?"
Bitty: "No weh fo' baf!"
Me: "Whatcha doing?"
Bitty: "No wah-choo doo-in'" (translation: I'm too busy to talk to you right now, or something along those lines)
Other times it's not so obvious.
Me: "Would you like some cran?"
(I pour him a cup of cranberry apple juice)
Bitty: "no cwah"
Me: "But you said you wanted cran"
Bitty: "you wah chwokka miwk?"
Me: "No... do YOU want chocolate milk?"
(a happy dance)
He gets creative sometimes, repeating back questions I have asked him before, that he wants me to ask him again (like "you want chocolate milk?" or "you want your trains?" lol). I've noticed that when he's repeating, he can say all kinds of words, even sentences and entire dialogues. Like the Pledge of Allegiance. His words are clearer when he's repeating something too. His "spontaneous" speech is more often shorter (one word or a brief phrase) and harder to understand.
Sometimes there's a "delayed reaction" aspect too.
Friday, dh asked him what he did at school that day. He answered with the name of one of his teachers.
About 2-3 hours later, he was sitting with me on the couch with his drink and some trains. He pulled the cup from his mouth and said, to no one in particular, "house-keepee... bee-bags" (housekeeping, bean bags). Now, I'm pretty sure those are things they have / do at school (the "housekeeping" center at school was one of Cuddlebug's favorites at that age too), so I'm guessing that this was a delayed response to the question about what he did that day. Today he found a little bean bag in the toy box (long since forgotten) and was repeating what sounded like a game that they must have played at school with bean bags.
It's these repeated conversations that are starting to give us a greater glimpse into his days. It's almost like getting a tape-recording of a little snippet of his day, because he doesn't "narrate" it, he says it word for word as if he was back there again. His weekly class newsletter said they learned about boys vs. girls last week. I asked him, "are you a boy or a girl?" He answered, "a goowul" with a giggle. (he has a silly sense of humor). Then he started into what sounded like his teacher's instructions, "ith yo' a bowee, tushyo' fee'" (if you're a boy, touch your feet)... "ith yo' a goowul, tushyo' nose." He pretty much ignored me as he did this, not really engaging me so much as reliving what was apparently a fun activity :).
A year ago, his words were few and far between. That was about the time he finally started saying words here and there, before that time he was pretty much non-verbal. It was about a year ago that he finally said "mama" again after he stopped saying it when he regressed. Nine months ago, the only answer he gave to the question of what he did at school was the word "skoo-bus" even though he's never ridden the bus so I can only guess it was just something he associated with school.
He's come a long way in the past months and year. He's talking so much more now, and yet so much of what's going on in his mind remains a mystery. For example, I have no idea why he says, "May-bis" (Mavis, one of his trains) whenever he sees me heading to work or coming home from work. Is it an association because "Mama" and "Mavis" both start with the same letter? So does "Molly" but he never says that when he sees me? Does he think I look like Mavis? Gee, I hope not ;).
As K said recently, it's hard to really know what he knows and what he doesn't. He surprises us often, and I have no doubt that more surprises are in store :).
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