Echolalia is the repetition of language from another source, it can be immediate or delayed. We are going to focus on delayed echolalia, which is when a child uses language they heard at a different time. The child may repeat a sentence from a television show or a verse from a song a few days after reading or hearing it. The language has been stored as a gestalt by the child and then retrieved in the moment when they use it. Delayed echolalia represents a unit of meaning for the child that is often tied to an experience. This experience when the child first heard the gestalt may be one in which the child was very excited or happy, it can also be one that was particularly scary or worrisome.
Echolalia communicates! Since it is tied to an experience, when a child uses delayed echolalia it’s important to investigate and determine what they are communicating by using that gestalt. Echolalia is the first stage in a multi-stage process, called Natural Language Acquisition, toward producing self-generated language. To support a child in the progression through each stage, speech therapists and others need to know what the child’s gestalts or echolalia are communicating, to then support them in building new gestalts that can be broken into smaller parts over time (i.e., Stage 2 of Natural Language Acquisition).
Although echolalia communicates, it cannot be taken literally! A child might say, “It’s pizza time!” but this doesn’t necessarily mean they want to eat pizza. The child may have this gestalt stored as a way of communicating “I’m hungry.” Perhaps a character in a show was very hungry and yelled "It's pizza time!" to express their excitement about being able to eat. To figure out what a child is communicating takes some “detective” work on the part of the speech therapist and the child’s family. Often the family will have lots of insight into where the child has heard the language before. The process of learning more about where a gestalt comes from allows a speech therapist to learn more about the context and situation in which the gestalt was originally experienced. This may provide more insight as to what the child is communicating when using the gestalt.
As speech therapists, other related professionals, or family members of gestalt language processors, we can support their language development by acknowledging their gestalts/echolalia, learning more about where the gestalt came from and what it communicates, and supporting the child to develop more gestalts to communicate a variety of functions (e.g., commenting, rejecting, expressing shared joy, etc.).
Some children will independently progress through the echolalia stage of Natural Language Acquisition. When a child is somewhat stuck at the stage of echolalia, it is helpful to seek speech therapy to support their language development.