One day, Declan walks into the room and says, “you’re my best friend.” My heart melts. I boisterously say back, “Why thank you, Declan!! You’re my best friend, too!!!” So I hug my best friend. Give him some kisses and snuggle with him while we watch one of his favorite shows, Teen Titans, Go! Halfway through the episode, Cyborg says to Beastboy “and that’s why you’re my best friend…” There is a certain familiar cadence to the dialogue, and before I can find it anymore intriguing, Declan begins repeating the same, “you’re my best friend” over, and over, and over again.
One of the first sentences Declan repeated was the phrase, “Awww, c’mon…are you kidding me?” It took us awhile to figure out what he was saying, but when he said it, I was super proud. During an evaluation he must’ve said it 15 times. The Developmental Pediatrician who evaluated him asked me what it was from and I told her, it was something Dad says at home and Declan repeats. And I made sure to point out to her, “It’s a 6 word sentence.” In the evaluation report by the DP that diagnosed Declan with autism, it was pointed out to me this repetition of speech was called Echolalia.
Echolalia is repeating what one hears. Echolalia serves a purpose – Declan repeated sounds that he heard and eventually he was able to say a phrase, breakdown the phrase and use each word in a new meaningful sentence. His speech has become more spontaneous now, and less repetitive. But say something to him in a pleasing tone, in a sing song voice and he will repeat it over and over. He is a parrot in this way – there are days he comes home from school saying, “get a good night sleeeeep…..get a good night sleeeeep….get a good night sleeeeep…..” and I know someone at school said this to him that day. And it will pop up in his speech throughout the day. Over and over again.
Echolalia is a form of stimming. I know…stimming? Before Declan, I had no idea either. Stimming is self-stimulation. Stimming is another repetitive behavior which helps a person who is receiving too much sensory input, is seeking more sensory input or needs an emotional regulator. Stimming in a person with autism could look like a person flapping their hands, rocking back and forth or side to side, making repetitive sounds, staring at blinking lights. And not all stimming is a behavior that a person wants to do – stimming serves a purpose. The person NEEDS to stim.
Declan’s Occupational Therapist when he was 2 put it out for me plain and simple – Declan’s body NEEDS input. He will seek out input because his body is craving it. He needs big falls, big crashes into things, jumping on his trampoline. Declan is constantly moving, constantly squeezing things, climbing things, chewing on things. Declan also will run, staring at the sky or ceiling and shaking his head back and forth. Declan is constantly seeking input. These are things that help Declan to feel. These repetitive behaviors help Declan to feel in sync.
There are other repetitive behavior patterns that Declan has and are associated with autism. Repetitive play, or repetitive series of events (aka, routine) for example. How you handle something with Declan one time, you are destined to do over and over again. When we go to our local playground we 1. play at the playground, 2. feed the fish at the pond, 3. walk in the woods, 4. feed the fish again and then 5. go get popsicles. Bob broke routine this past week and walked Declan home from the woods. Declan was so upset the routine was broken – he stood outside our house screaming, crying, heartbroken and punching the house. Repetition is predictable and helps regulate Declan’s emotions.
Repetitive behavior patterns can be helpful. When Declan is in sync he is more likely to have a successful day at school, at home, at play. Repeating words can be calming. Repeating patterns of play can be predictable and pleasing. Sure, the behaviors may look odd, but they are extremely helpful to the person who is exhibiting them.