Have you ever tried to remember a phone number and find yourself repeating the number over and over? Sometimes, repeating things help us memorize them. We may even find it helpful to repeat it in a certain sing-song voice. This is similar to what we find with some individuals who are learning new skills. Similar to repeating a phone number, scrolling and echolalia serve a purpose for the individual; but we should understand what they are and some of the reasons they may occur.
Scrolling is when an individual gives multiple responses with the correct one included somewhere in the list. For example, if a student had previously learned to identify a banana and you show them a picture of an apple and ask them to identify it, they might respond “banana, apple”. Scrolling sometimes occurs because the client is learning multiple similar words at once. They are trying to find the right response from their repertoire to answer your question.
In the case of our example, they have been identifying fruit and have memorized the names, but possibly not the concrete item that goes with the word. They may know that in the past, the response “banana” has resulted in reinforcement so if they are not quite understanding the question or the language behind it, they may attempt to show a similar response to the picture of the apple.
Echolalia also involves a form of repetition, but in this case the client is simply repeating what you most recently said to them. If you ask “What is your name?”, they might respond by repeating “What is your name?” rather than by responding with the answer to the question. One of the main reasons that echolalia occurs is because our clients are used to repeating what we say to them as we are teaching them new phrases. It becomes a habit for them and they are comfortable with that form of response. Sometimes, it’s a result of the language demands moving too quickly. Clients need to have a solid repertoire of receptive and expressive language before moving on to intraverbal skills. If intraverbals are taught too early and the comprehension hasn’t caught up, it can result in echolalic responses.
Cleaning Up Your Reactions
There are many methods that can be used, but we always start by making sure that our reactions are clean. When a student scrolls with the correct answer, “banana, apple” we often catch ourselves saying “good” because they did say apple. However, this is not a clean reinforcement. We have now taught the client that both answers are correct. Instead, we need to correct and prompt in stages until the client is able to only answer correctly. The first time we prompt we might give the answer in full. Then we may only give initial sounds of the answer before finally just asking the question and waiting on the response. This is part of the important error correction procedure that we must pay attention to every time.
Often when scrolling or echolalia are occurring it is because the client has not mastered the necessary skills to grasp the new concept. In order for the client to be able to answer certain questions or meet certain expectations, they need to have a base understanding in place. Oftentimes, we need to go back to prior skills and recheck mastery in order to see success in curbing both scrolling and echolalia. A client cannot describe an apple if we have not shown them different types of apple. This is one of our favorite times to use concrete items that they can touch, taste when appropriate, etc.
Mix and Vary
Our clients will sometimes become very comfortable with a certain way of doing things. They like their comfort zone and moving outside of that realm can be a challenge for them. This is sometimes why we see scrolling and echolalia. A client gets used to answering or responding in a certain way and that becomes the norm. For example, if we are working on getting a client to clap their hands and we have asked them multiple times to do so, when we change the request to stomping their feet they may automatically clap their hands. This is why it is so important to mix and vary your requests often and teach multiple targets at a time. You will want to choose some things that the client has already mastered and the new skill you are working on in each session. This way the client does not become overly comfortable with a response.
Build a Team
Changing any inappropriate responses for a client often requires the help of the team. As an ABA professional we are only one piece of that team. Especially when dealing with scrolling and echolalia, it is so important to involve others, like a speech pathologist. The speech pathologist has a better understanding of the client’s verbal skills and can definitely give feedback on where they have mastery and where they need more work. Reach out, get all the help you can!
Scrolling and echolalia are habits that can be broken. Take some time to determine why they are occurring. Make sure that you check yourself and your own responses or prompts that may be encouraging, rather than deterring. Then find concrete ways to cover the base skills and teach across operants. With some patience and persistence, you will see improvements.