E is for Echo and Echolalia

Echo is a nymph in Greek mythology who was cursed by Hera, the goddess of Marriage and Family, and the wife of Zeus, to repeat only the last words spoken to her. Hera was just mad at her husband’s shenanigans and Echo was the scapegoat of her wrath, in my view. The curse meant that Echo became unable to communicate with the man she loves—Narcissus.  In despair, Echo retreated into the mountains and pined away for her lost love, and what she left behind, was her voice reverberating against the rocks as she repeats over and over again the words she last heard. 

In this painting by John William Waterhouse, we see Echo looking over her left shoulder at Narcissus, the Greek hunter who couldn’t stop looking at his own reflection. From this, we get the word “narcissistic”. Echo looks in despair, unable to tell Narcissus how she feels, cursed only to repeat his last words. These could be “I am so beautiful”, the likely words that Narcissus would have uttered, at the core of the myth of Narcissus is his vain and solipsistic view of self and world. However, the words, according to Ovid, were “Who are you?” which Echo repeated back to Narcissus, the object of her love. Their courtship, if they had one in the first place, did not take off, as you can imagine.  But in “Who are you?” lies an important symbol related to self.  Without knowing who we are, we cannot grow and change. Self-development and growth are two very important directions for me, personally, and to do this, one must be just a little bit narcissistic, in my view. But narcissism with a pinch of salt, that is. This is a topic for another day. Today, I’d like to concentrate on Echo.

So back to Echo. In language acquisition, repeating words and phrases is often how a child learns to communicate. “Da-da”, ‘Pa-pa”, “Ma-ma”, “Ta-ta” are all familiar sounds for those of us with toddlers. Toddlers often start with the plosive sounds before they move on to other sounds in the vast database of human sounds and languages. 

The term echolalia is used to describe the behavioural feature amongst autistic children for word and phrasal repetitions. While it is common for children up to 3 years of age to be repetitive, mirroring sounds, that translate into words, at this stage of their linguistic development, it is a sign of autism, if the child continues to echo, beyond the age of three.

Researchers have found many reasons for this symptomatic feature of ASD and have agreed that echolalia is an attempt amongst children on the spectrum to maintain social interactions, and/or learn and practice new words in order to add to their existing repertoire; it could also indicate that they may find some words challenging to understand and therefore repeat these words in their attempts at comprehending them. As a neurotypical adult, I often find myself repeating instructions verbally during my pilates sessions in order to process them. For example, I am not very good at changing directions with ease. When my instructor tells me to reverse an action, I repeat the instruction: “Change directions, circle inwards” again and again to remind myself of what I’m doing while I’m in the midst of doing it. It’s my brain’s way of processing information.

There are three types of echolalia: immediate, delayed and mitigated.

  1. In immediate echolalia, the child repeats sounds/words/phrases immediately after hearing them. It is as if they are rehearsing these words. It is also used to self-regulate, for example, a child may repeat “don’t jump on the sofa” as he gradually slows down this action. Then, a child could repeat phrases in an agitated or frustrated manner with no obvious attempts at self-regulation; this could be alarming to watch, understandably. I tend to think that somewhere at the back of this child’s mind lies their efforts in understanding their world. 
  2. In delayed echolalia, sounds/words/phrases can appear in the child’s speech at a later time. This could be because the child is learning how to take turns, to agree or to protest, and can be seen as a general attempt at communication. Sometimes, delayed echolalia could be a way to communicate emotions as the child mirrors the sounds around them, sounds they have heard when watching a TV programme, for example, or after they have heard people talking and a particular word/phrase used in the conversation has made an impact on them. Then, it could also be an attempt at understanding certain words. This is a processing function and sometimes, the child may use the sounds/words/phrases in inappropriate situations, indicating that they do not really understand the meaning of these words. 
  3. In mitigated echolalia, the child changes the words in the speech they have heard, while habitually repeating phrases and sounds. This is usually an indicator that the child has a stronger grasp of language acquisition. 

It is good to note that the act of repeating is a natural phenomenon in life. We learn through repetition and we retain information through hearing the same things being repeatedly uttered. There is positivity in learning the “broken-record” way.

Readers and followers would have heard me jabbering on, echoing the same words like ~ Open goes to ~ or ~ Open travels to ~ in my excited attempts at sharing Open’s journeys. It’s been fun watching Open travel the world vicariously. Most of the time, I wish I were there too; but a girl can only be in one place at a time, physically. 

People have also been experiencing a high level of social media feeds on my various accounts sharing news about what I’ve been doing creative writing-wise. Do bear with me as I take you vicariously on the book’s journeys, as well as, my personal journeys of growth and development.

As I search for words and phrases and the language to explain what I do creatively, I am also engaging with my brain’s processing function, to better understand what I can offer as a creative and what I can do as an educator in the arts. In these repetitive meditations, I take time to reflect, to consolidate learning and to improve existing skills.

In my industry, where soft skills and intangible personal assets are difficult to quantify or describe statistically, I find that the more I engage repetitively with my processes, the easier it becomes to communicate to others what I can offer. In this way, I live with a tad of echolalia and it would seem that I’m subjecting my friends and family to the same words and phrases again and again. But repetition is not always a negative thing. So do be patient with your autistic child and adult when they echo in their attempts at processing information. With regards to individuals on the spectrum, it is good to note that echolalia is a sign that they are listening and processing.

Some friends would have heard how I am putting together a programme to teach creative writing using artworks as prompts and to offer this at a corporate leadership training level. Through a guided writing exercise, I tap into the participants’ emotional banks, helping them find their words to express themselves comprehensively, all done through engaging with visual art. The magic of the unconscious works to unlock the nuanced emotions that they are already familiar with and through working-through them in the form of creative writing, participants gain a refreshing sense of self and a renewed sense of well-being. Researchers working within corporate training have translated this quantifiably with percentages (%) indicating a decrease (-) in staff turn over and an increase (+) in staff productivity. In my experience as an educator, I’ve seen how creative writing can help with understanding the nuances of emotions as we choose some words over others to express ourselves; creative writing has also added another layer of meaning into language use. Being happy is not the same as being content, similarly, being angry is not the same as being disappointed. When we begin to understand these nuances, we also begin to realise that we are complex beings with potential for growth and change. As the world moves busily around us, it is so very important to engage fully with our nuanced emotions for a deeper sense of living, loving and working. 

As I continue my journey as an author, writer and educator and as the book gains traction in Singapore and internationally, I’m being invited by various agencies to talk, conduct workshops and speak to people about how the creative process can help foster resilience, empathy and compassion. I’ll be at the Singapore Writers Festival in November conducting a creative writing workshop for children aged 11 – 14. Read about it here. 

Also in November, I’m on a panel discussing See the True Me: The Power of Stories with Tan Guan Heng and Grace Phua. I can’t wait to meet both these inspiring individuals. For folks based in Singapore, this panel discussion will be free of charge, taking place at the National Library of Singapore, Central Library, 4 – 5:30 PM, November 3. Come and listen in. 

As I end my post, this reminds me that we are coming to the end of another calendar year. How time has flown! It will soon be my favourite time of the year–Christmas–where I recharge with family and friends. I bet you’ll be doing the same too.

Until the next post, take care and stay authentic! 

 

Image credit: Waterhouse, John William, Echo and Narcissus, 1903, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, United Kingdom.