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Echolalia and Its Role in Gestalt Language Acquisition

Echolalia is the repetition of utterances produced by others. There are two types of echolalia—immediate and delayed.

  • Immediate echolalia refers to utterances that are repeated immediately or after a brief delay.
  • Delayed echolalia refers to utterances that are repeated after a significant delay (Prizant & Rydell, 1984). Echolalia is prevalent among individuals with ASD who are verbal and may remain as part of their verbal behavior for some time (Fay, 1969).

Historically, echolalia has been described as meaningless and without communicative function. However, a growing body of research has identified various communicative functions of echolalia (e.g., turn-taking, labeling, requesting, affirming, and protesting) and has suggested its role in gestalt language acquisition (Prizant, 1982, 1983; Prizant & Duchan, 1981; Prizant & Rydell, 1984; Stiegler, 2015).

Gestalt language acquisitionis a style of language development with predictable stages that begins with production of multi-word “gestalt forms” and ends with production of novel utterances.

  • At first, children produce “chunks” or “gestalt form” (e.g., echolalic utterances), without distinction between individual words and without appreciation for internal syntactic structure.
  • As children understand more about syntax and syntactic rules, they can analyze (break down) these “gestalt forms” and begin to recombine segments and words into spontaneous forms.
  • Eventually, the child is able to formulate creative, spontaneous utterances for communication purposes.

This view of gestalt language acquisition and the role of echolalia in individuals with ASD is reflected in assessment procedures (e.g., assessing communicative function of echolalia) and treatment approaches to language intervention (see e.g., Blanc, 2012). 

For a discussion of gestalt language acquisition in typically developing children and in children with ASD, see Prizant (1983) and Stiegler (2015).   

References

Blanc, M. (2012). Natural language acquisition on the autism spectrum: The journey from echolalia to self-generated language. Communication Development Center.

Fay, W. H. (1969). On the basis of autistic echolalia. Journal of Communication Disorders, 2(1), 38–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/0021-9924(69)90053-7

Prizant, B. M. (1982). Gestalt language and gestalt processing in autism. Topics in Language Disorders, 3(1), 16–23.

Prizant, B. M. (1983). Language acquisition and communicative behavior in autism: Toward an understanding of the “whole” of it. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 48(3), 296–307. https://doi.org/10.1044/jshd.4803.296

Prizant, B. M., & Duchan, J. F. (1981). The functions of immediate echolalia in autistic children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 46(3), 241–249. https://doi.org/10.1044/jshd.4603.241

Prizant, B. M., & Rydell, P. J. (1984). Analysis of functions of delayed echolalia in autistic children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 27(2), 183–192. https://doi.org/10.1044/jshr.2702.183

Stiegler, L. N. (2015). Examining the echolalia literature: Where do speech-language pathologists stand? American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 24(4), 750–762. https://doi.org/10.1044/2015_AJSLP-14-0166

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