“Mummy my buffers are boiling today!!” What an odd expression for your child to say as they walk home from school – what on earth are they talking about? Buffers?? Boiling?? This is an example of echolalia and it is very common in autism.
Echolalia basically means repeating & echoing words and sounds – it’s how we all learn to talk as babies. We copy the words & sounds we hear and as we gain more & more understanding we are able to put together our own sentences and formulate our own phrases into meaningful language. We are able to communicate effectively. However, people on the autistic spectrum will usually say words and phrases in the exact way they learn them. They will use the same tone and sometimes even copy the accent of the person they’ve learned the phrase from. They will copy phrases from cartoons, movies, teachers, family and wherever else they may hear language from.
Echolalia can be used as a way to calm someone when they’re anxious – they will repeat a familiar phrase, it can be used to “self talk” through a difficult process or it can be used as a way to communicate when someone can’t actually form their own words or explain in their own way how they are feeling. People on the autistic spectrum can memorise huge chunks of language and quote it back word for word – sometimes it can be useful and other times not so much.
Repeating phrases from cartoons is something Caleb does often – obviously because I’m around him all the time and tuned into his ways I can tell what he’s quoting but when he meets someone new this can be very odd. Only last week a supermarket worker casually asked him what sweets he was buying, Caleb replied with “10 pies, a packet full of chips, 30 apple cores, a sponge pudding, 100 sausages and an orange.” Echolalia. He learned this phrase from a cartoon, knew it was a list of foods, knew the worker was looking for foods as an answer so replied with what he’d learned. He will often do this – if he is anxious, doesn’t quite know what someone is asking him, isn’t sure how to formulate his own answer then you are likely to get a chunk of learned language. He once told his teacher that he was “melting” and was saying it in a very funny accent – again he’d seen a cartoon character say this and was actually trying to get across that he wasn’t coping very well with the work he’d just been doing. Another example would be “my buffers are boiling” – this is straight from Thomas the tank cartoons. I knew it meant he’d had a hard day, he was exhausted, he’d had enough. He wasn’t able to get his own words so Thomas’s words would do the job in his mind.
So echolalia. If you hear my little guy talking in a funny accent, saying words or phrases that don’t quite match the situation he’s in, answering your question with a random, odd phrase that doesn’t make any sense it’s a sign that he’s not understanding what is being asked of him or he isn’t able to actually form his own words at that time so a crazy quote or phrase from the wise old elf or Thomas or fireman Sam is the perfect way to answer in his mind!!! Who doesn’t love a random cartoon quote to brighten up their day anyway??!!