Aspects of Aspergers

perspectives from the spectrum

Echolalia and hyperlexia as stages of language development

Posted by capriwim on October 10, 2010

Children with Asperger Syndrome are said to have abnormal language development. ‘Echolalia’ and ‘hyperlexia’ are two ‘symptoms’ that are often mentioned. ‘Echolalia’ means repeating what another person is saying, with no evidence of comprehension, and ‘hyperlexia’ means reading exceptionally well and fluently for one’s age, but with poor comprehension.

Well, although I remember learning to read quite clearly (and I did indeed have a reading age which was way above my chronological age) it’s hard to remember learning language as a whole. I don’t remember learning to understand and speak spoken language, although I remember specific incidents of learning specific words and phrases. My mind has developed now – as an adult I understand what I read and hear, so long as I focus.

So I’ve decided to put myself into the situation of learning language from scratch all over again, by starting to teach myself Italian. Of course it’s different – I already know English (and bits of other languages) so I’m not learning the concept of language from scratch. I understand Italian in the context of what I know of English. And I’m learning Italian in England, where I’m surrounded by English speaking people, so of course it’s artificial. But I’m teaching myself by exposing myself to the spoken and written language, through podcasts and Italian literature, and seeing how much I absorb. I’ve read the pronunciation rules, which are very straightforward compared with English. And I do a few Italian lessons online, or from CDs, but the vocabulary I have so far is very basic.

And here is what I find. When listening to Italian podlasts, I find myself repeating various phrases. I have no idea what they mean – which is quite normal at this point, I think, because I doubt anyone would start understanding a language just by listening. But I automatically repeat the words, because I like the feel of them on my tongue, and the sound I make. I actually have no desire, at this point, to understand. I just like the sound and the feel. I also listen to Italian songs and memorise them, with no comprehension. I just like to sing them. With the Italian novels, I read them aloud. I have got the hang of Italian pronunciation, on the whole, and I love to read Italian out loud and to increase my fluency. Again, I have no idea what any of it means, other than the occasional word, but that is absolutely fine. At this point it would be too confusing to also be grappling with comprehension, because my brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

And so it seems to me that actually ‘echolalia’ and ‘hyperlexia’ are the most logical, efficient ways for an autistic person to learn language. We only process things one at a time. We don’t multitask. And we start from the details and move up to the big picture. Meaning is the big picture. Any ‘between the lines’ meaning is even bigger picture. The actual shapes of the words themselves – the consonants, the vowels, the patterns – this is detail, and this is where we start. While neurotypical people start with the big picture and move towards the details, people on the autistic spectrum work the other way around.

Temple Grandin points out that driving a car is only multitasking when you are learning to drive. Once you’ve learnt, then it’s automatic, and you can focus on the road. And I think the same is true of language to some extent. With the English language, when I read, I don’t have to sound out each phoneme as I did as a very young child. I recognise words automatically. Listening can be harder, because of all the variance in how how people produce words in different contexts and with different accents, but when I focus, I can do it. I don’t have to analyse each phoneme to grasp the word, nor do I have to analyse each word to hear meaning. Most of it is automatic, and what my brain actively work on is the overall meaning, and any meaning in between the lines (as this is not automatic). But with Italian, nothing is automatic yet, and so I can only concentrate on one aspect at a time. I hope, as I continue to learn, that the details will become automatic, and I will eventually learn to grasp the big picture and understand what I read and hear.

So I don’t believe that hyperlexia and echolalia are, in themselves, negative things. They are stages in language development for many people with Asperger Syndrome, and essential stages, I believe. It’s possible to get stuck in a stage – and particularly for people on the autistic spectrum, for whom switching from one thing to another is very difficult – but that doesn’t mean that the stage itself is bad. In fact, I’d speculate that trying to hurry a child out of a stage, by making him focus on comprehension before he’s ready, could be harmful.

So I will continue learning Italian by listening, repeating and reading without comprehension, and I will observe what happens.

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6 Responses to “Echolalia and hyperlexia as stages of language development”

  1. My son is Autistic and Hyperlexic and he does the same thing. We speak mostly English at home, but my husband also speaks Italian and I speak Spanish and Hebrew. My son will repeat entire sentences and memorized verses of songs in any of these languages. And although he clearly doesn’t understand them, his pronunciation is perfect. I think echolalia is actually a very useful tool for picking up the correct pronunciation of unfamiliar sounds. People who are able to repeat back words in another language with correct pronunciation are often musically gifted as well — it’s the ability to listen and mimic what you hear that helps in both cases.

    I am not officially on the spectrum myself, but I was very much like my son when I was his age, and I share a lot of his quirks. I learned Hebrew by memorizing song lyrics and then much later looking up the words to learn what they meant. I found that I retained the vocabulary much better that way, as opposed to using flashcards or memorizing lists of words by rote.

    Good luck with the Italian!

    -Sarah

    • capriwim said

      Hi – thanks for the comment. Interestingly, I had singing lessons for a while when I was younger, just out of curiosity to see if I could learn to sing. When taught the traditional way, with a sheet of music to read, while my teacher played piano, I wasn’t very good at it – but one day I borrowed a CD from the library with an opera singer singing the song I was learning, and I listened and repeated at home, and then in my singing lesson I sang the song and my teacher was amazed and wanted to know how I’d improved so much. I can only do music through listening and repeating – I can’t read or understand music.

      I also used to entertain my classmates at school by imitating the teachers. :-) I think it’s because I don’t simply hear the meaning, as others do, but I hear every detail of its delivery. I do think it is the best way for me to learn language.

  2. I think singing is a very good way to learn, whether one is on the autistic spectrum or neurotypical. The alphabet is taught by singing (and I still sometimes have to sing it – silently, of course – when looking things up in a dictionary, etc.!), and some Bible verses are, too. I wonder why it’s not used as a teaching method more often.

  3. Florafloraflora said

    Here’s a fascinating podcast from this past summer about words and language acquisition.

    Echolalia might be the most fun part of learning a language. During my brief stab at Japanese I fell in love with the phrase “aoi umi”: “blue sea”. And when I took Russian I delighted in the first entire sentence I learned to say: “Gde Chornoye More?” or “Where’s the Black Sea?” It seems I like the sea. But beyond that, it’s cool to bridge the gap between hearing those amazing sounds and making them yourself. Knowing what they mean adds an extra layer of smugness. I don’t remember learning to speak but I can see how it would have felt something like that.

  4. [...] PolicyTerms of Use Echolalia and hyperlexia as stages of language development « Aspects of Aspergers var prevent_bust = 0; window.onbeforeunload = function(event) { if (event.target.activeElement == [...]

  5. tagAught said

    Fascinating! I’m definitely going to be passing this post on to my sister…. (Speech Language Pathologist)

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