Hyperlexia & Echolalia

My daughter’s very first love happened at aged 2. We were having an afternoon at home, CBeebies was quietly playing in the background, Neiva was on the floor playing with her toys, a ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ day.

Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, she began to laugh, a real long hearty laugh.

You have to understand, up to this moment Neiva hadn’t really shown any particular interest in anything. No favourite comforter (other than her dummies), no favourite food (she ate anything and everything with the same gusto and enthusiasm), no favourite toy (she would play with everything equally and without favouritism). But, this day, something she saw and heard stopped her in a tracks and put the biggest smile on her face, clapping her hands with excitement.

I looked up. It was an episode of Charlie & Lola called ‘I’ve Got Nobody To Play With’. Lola is trying to play by herself with two walkie-talkies, running back and forth between beds asking for pink milk. I played it again. Sure enough, the belly laughs came. Neiva was up on her feet clapping and bubbling over with excitement. You can see a recording of her here. We still have absolutely no idea why that particular part made her laugh. She is now 6 and still laughs uncontrollably at this scene.

From that moment on, Neiva’s intense love for all things Charlies & Lola began to blossom. We had no idea just how much those two beautifully quirky little characters would soon help us communicate with our gifted little girl.

What is Hyperlexia?

Neiva has Hyperlexia. In short, Hyperlexia is a syndrome which is closely similar to autism, though it has very different defining characteristics. These children are highly intellectual but have to work extremely hard in social situations. What makes Hyperlexia unique to other types of syndromes on the autism spectrum, is the gift of self taught reading, usually before the age of 5 (Neiva taught herself to read when she was almost 3 years old). This, combined with a highly developed visual and audio memory, and an unusual fascination with letters, numbers shapes, colours and maps.

One of the negative sides of Hyperlexia is a lack of everyday conversation. Neiva would very rarely asked for things and if she wanted something she would just simply point, give a one word answer, or just attempt to get what she wanted herself. But, this was all soon to change thanks to Charlie and his little sister, Lola.

What is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the term used to describe when a child repeats or imitates what someone else has said. For example, if you ask the child “Do you want a cookie?”, the child says “cookie” instead of “yes”. There is also a type of echolalia called “delayed echolalia” which is when the child repeats something he has heard before, even though he did not just hear it. For example, a child may repeat a line from a favourite movie even though that movie is not playing currently (Source: Speech & Language Kids). It was this type of delayed echolalia that we could relate to everyday moments with Neiva.

Echolalia is clinically described by some as a “meaningless repetition of another person’s spoken words”. How cold! I could not disagree more. This description is reckless. Every single sentence or phrase that a child uses echolalia to communicate with the world is not ‘meaningless’. They have specifically chosen to speak those words for a reason. Decoding the meaning of those words, for us as her parents, meant that we had to turn this communication barrier into a game, a puzzle, instead of a chore. Some phrases were self explanatory, others took some time to unravel, but the beauty of echolalia is, once the message has been decoded, it very rarely changes its meaning. Children with hyperlexia have an incredible memory. Astonishingly so. So for them, that particular phrase is set, like indelible ink.

Types of Echolalia

Immediate Echolalia is when a child repeats a phrase you have just said, for example, “would you like an apple or an orange” they may reply “apple or an orange”. It is important to realise that she is not saying this because she does not understand you. It is her way of saying ‘I’ve heard what you said, I am just processing that information and need a minute to do that’. Pausing for a few seconds longer before asking again really goes a long way to helping a child using immediate echolalia.

A practical solution for a situation like this would be a visual aid. So if I wanted Neiva to choose between an apple or an orange, I would have one in each hand and she would choose. If she chose an apple for example I would then hold the apple in front of her and say “I would like an apple please mummy” and she would repeat the phrase whilst taking the apple. Very quickly she would know that for me to release the apple in my hand she would have to ask for it. Again, because of her incredible auditory and visual ability, this situation and accompanying phrase would be banked in her memory.

Since hyperlexia is a self taught reading ability, we use this gift in situations where there are no visual aids to help. We would simply and clearly write down her choices and she would read and decide this way.

Delayed Echolalia… is the repetition of phrases after a period of time has passed. It could be months or even years after the phrase was originally heard and may randomly be spoken by the child at any time or any place. Below are some common reasons why a child may use delayed echolalia.  

….. for personal entertainment

This is something that we really relate to. Neiva from the age of two would repeat large sections of Charlie & Lola episodes days and weeks after watching it, excitedly reciting and reenacting word perfect out of nowhere and for seemingly no apparent reason.

I found this fascinating to watch. It was like she was in her own private movie theatre in her mind, experiencing escapism of the best kind. For some, this type of delayed echolalia is a child’s way of self soothing, often labelled under ‘self stimulatory behaviour’.

…..to convey a message

Some phrases were self explanatory. “I’m really ever so not well Charlie” she would say, Lola’s voice mimicked to perfection, or, “It is completely absolutely boiling” for when she was (of course) too hot.

Another obvious, well used, phrase was when it came to combing her hair after a bath. Neiva, despite having the most gorgeously beautiful long hair, detests the upkeep and responsibility that comes with it. “I like my hair completely the way it is” or “not the brushing Charlie, PLEASE not the brushing” were commonly asked when it was time to comb that enormous mane of hers. In this situation she would always ask if she could be “Princess No-Knots” another phrase from this episode, which to her translated ‘please stop brushing my hair now, that’s quite enough’.

My personal favourite phrase Neiva uses happens whenever I ask if she wants to go somewhere or do something that she is really excited about for example: a visit to the Ice-cream Farm or her favourite past time, to have a bubbly bath. Her smile slowly grows until it finally reaches her eyes then she replies, heartfelt and slowly “I really….really absolutely do”. It melts my heart every single time.

…. to determine mood or emotion

Some phrases though, required more thought. Whenever Neiva was sad or frustrated she would shout loudly and definitely “its my zoo house and my town too Charlie!” For weeks we did not know what she was trying to say. All we knew was that she was always sad usually with tears when she said it, until one day we watched the episode. Charlie was uncharacteristically mean to Lola and it made her feel so sad. So although the phrase Neiva was saying did not relate to anything going on in the real world, to her the phrase made her remember that Lola was sad and that was the message she was trying to articulate to us.

….. to process and compartmentalise her memories

For a child with an incredibly active visual and auditory memory like Neiva, the every day processing of information can be overwhelming. These incredible brains are storing masses amounts of information every second of every minute of every day and need to be sorted through. For this to happen these children use delayed echolalia as a way of processing the memories that bubble up to the surface and need somewhere to go, like folding and putting away mental laundry. For a parent of a child who finds conversation difficult, delayed echolalia is a life saver. A window into your child’s thoughts and feelings and a wonderful insight into her school day for example. For Neiva, I know she feels so much better when her thoughts and feelings have been processed and she can move on to a new day.

Today…..

Neiva still uses echolalia from time to time, more so during the school day if it gets too much for her or if a regular routine changes. She has the most incredible teacher (Miss T) who has been by her side since nursery, who knows exactly how to comfort and reassure her. We are incredibly lucky to have her in Neiva’s life.

Neiva will be 7 this Autumn and still adores Charlie & Lola and I’m so pleased she does. She has an extensive collection of Charlie & Lola books that she adores and reads most nights. I will be so sad when she eventually outgrows them. However, I am reassured that when she is all grown up, she will look back at her childhood and remember with great fondness just what a huge part of her emotional life they were during these important early years.

These photographs were taken at the beautiful Newby Hall in Yorkshire, during the Lauren Child Summer Exhibition that is currently running from July until September 2018.

To follow our journey on Instagram click here

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