I once saw this horrible made-for-TV movie about a boy with
Autism who was instrumental in solving a murder because he was a witness and he
had a penchant for repeating things, and this is how he revealed the killer.
Only instead of the classic Autistic echolalia of just repeating what is heard in one's own voice,
the boy in this movie took on the ACTUAL voice of the killer and it was comical
as the voice of the killer was transposed on this lip syncing boy actor. Um,
that’s not really how echolalia works, guys.
I also used to work in a group home with teens on the Autism
spectrum who would echo random things back, like “OJ’s going to jail!” or the
old jingle to the Ross commercial.* On occasion, I would hear a child echo back
a command I had given earlier, and I got to hear how I sounded through their
ears. Hint: naggingly annoying.
Now that I have my own little one, I am fascinated by language
development. While Toddler B doesn’t have echolalia, anyone who has a toddler knows
that they are little mynah birds and will repeat ANYTHING. Be careful, parents
who drop a dish and say something in colorful language in front of their
toddler. Because one day, that kiddo will use that language in the correct
context at preschool and you will die of embarrassment. So I’ve heard.
I get a window into how language shapes cognition and memory
every night, as my girl recaps her day and I get to eavesdrop on her through
the monitor. I am stunned by what she replays in her mind, her young mind not
yet able to tap into Vygotsky’s inner monologue skills.** I hear myself through
the voices of her teddy bears. “Oh no, Teddy, we don’t put jackets on dogs, okay?”
or “Oh, you fell? I’m so sorry, mommy
will kiss it” Or “I need you to pick up your toys NOW!” If you’ve ever gotten
the recap of your parenting played out with stuffed animals, you will be
SHOCKED how much is getting into that little spongy brain. Just when you think
that little one isn’t listening, they show proof that they remember EVERYTHING.
I see her do it during her play too. Piaget was spot on when
he said that, “We can be sure that all things in a child’s life, pleasant and
unpleasant, will have repercussions on her dolls.” Toddler B plays out when a
kid hit her at preschool and how she reacted, shares her feelings about mommy
going to work with lots of bags (school psychs, you hear me?!?), and plays
“school” by making all the monkeys raise their paws to talk (tear…playing
school just like her mama did when she was little. Sniff sniff).
As a parent, it is a daily reminder that what you say to
your child is shaping who they are. As a school psychologist, it reminds me
that the kids we work with obviously have inner speech now, so we can't be as sure as when a toddler repeats everything, but we can be reasonably sure that what we say to them can still become
a part of who they are and how they think about themselves.
*Only instead of the full jingle, this gal always left off
where she got her great clothes. “Do you love it? I love it! I got it at…Do you
love it? I love it! I got it at…” After 3 years of hearing this jingle, part of
me wanted to fill in “ROSS!” you got it at “ROSS!” I guess I just like a sense
of completion in a world of chaos. But I digress.
**I have a coworker like this too. She likes to narrate
everything she does. “I’m going to put this folder here…now what was I going to
do next? Ah, that’s right, go to the bathroom…” Not having private speech is
cute in a toddler, not so much in a grown woman.