Today I learned about ” The Child with Unusual Behaviours – Repetitive non-functional speech and talking to self”

I’ve kept hearing my new daughter (MaryJane with the made up name) talking to herself. In the toilet, in the bathtub, in her room and outside and I kept on thinking, is this Normal? I can’t remember talking to myself when I was little and usually people only talk to themselves when they want to remember something. Yesterday she was muttering under her breadth and when asked what she was saying, she said “nothing”, or “I wasn’t speaking”

Repetitive talk and talking to self usually go together, and are exhibited by children and adolescents with a broad range of developmental difficulties. These children and adolescents usually have social difficulties as well, and tend to be resistant to change and to display repetitive motor behaviours. They may repeat, “What are we doing tomorrow? What are we doing tomorrow?” as many as ten times, or until someone interrupts and redirects them.

They may also repeat phrases to themselves, such as, “It’s ok, you are not hurt” or “It’s not the end of the world“. Although just a few children display these characteristics, they require extensive input and support from school and home

The behaviours are common amongst those children who have intellectual disabilities, a language impairment, or an autism spectrum disorder, but also may occur in typically developing children, especially early in development of their language. The types of behaviours that are characterised as repetitive and non-functional include:


  1. talking aloud to self
  2. reversing pronouns (for example, saying “you” instead of “me”)
  3. immediate and delayed echolalia (repeating what they have heard)
  4. difficulty interpreting humour and symbolic language (such as “the world is getting smaller” or “time flies”)
  5. talks only about certain restricted topics of interest
  6. not looking at a person when speaking

So as I was reading through this list, I realised MaryJane was showing at least 5 traits, usually talking while looking at the floor or facing away, eye contact minimal or non-existent, me having to ask her to repeat something because I didn’t get the whole wording due to mumbling.

The child clearly presents a problem that needs immediate attention if he or she:

  • avoids eye contact frequently
  • talks to himself or herself
  • says things unrelated to the context
  • becomes very upset and may tantrum when asked to interrupt a task and engage in something else
  • covers his or her ears to noise
  • loves to touch specific surfaces
  • engages in visual self-stimulation (such as looking at mirrors or squinting the eyes)
  • flaps his or her hands or rock to and fro
  • Refuses to stay on topic of discussion and consistently trying to divert the topic to their own interest.
  • Makes comments which cause you to think “where did that come from?”

The child with these characteristics is also likely not to interact with peers, and to appear to be in a world of his or her own.

Whoops. All of then match for the age groups she’s in.

Your son or daughter may have a diagnosed language impairment, intellectual disability, or autism spectrum disorder.

If your son or daughter has a diagnosis, then it is important for you to understand the diagnosis, know what to expect and know how to intervene.
If they have no such diagnosis, consider the following behaviours “Red Light” if your son or daughter:

  • Shows a tendency to be oblivious to the needs of others
  • Shows some aggressive behaviours towards the self or others
  • Shows a possible sensory preoccupation or two
  • Shows some resistance to change
  • Uses language that may be grammatically competent but is having difficulties with metaphors, humour and jokes
  • Shows fine and gross motor difficulties.
  • Uses frequent echolalia (repetition of words or phrases); with increased occurrences in highly challenging environments that cause confusion or disorganization such as transitions between activities or when the child is unable to predict the behaviour or expectations of others
  • Uses neologisms (made-up new words)
  • Talks aloud to self
  • Loudly interrupts others, calls others names for their ideas/opinions which differ from theirs
  • Is failing courses in school because of lack of understanding material
  • Refuses to stay on topic of discussion and consistently trying to divert the topic to their own interest.
  • Makes comments which cause you to think “where did that come from?”

If your son or daughter shows some of these characteristics, it is important that these behaviours are discussed with your family physician and/or other specialists in this area.

Such behaviours would warrant a referral to a psychologist and/or speech and language pathologist for further investigation.

There is considerable research on the reasons why children speak to themselves or use speech that has no relevance to the context. The following positions have been put forth:

The Genetic Hypothesis

There are many studies looking at possible causes of these problems:

In some families there appear to be other family members with these problems or related difficulties, and this suggests that there may be a genetic basis to these problems. Studies with identical and fraternal twins concluded that these behaviours are hereditarily transmitted.

This view holds that different genes, whose exact number is still unclear, when present in the fetus, are likely to result in the appearance of the problem behaviours in the offspring.

The genetic position is supported by the fact that identical twin pairs are more likely than non identical twin pairs to show the same difficulties. Many different genes in more than one location of the chromosomes are likely responsible for the problem, although, to the present time, no specific gene(s) have been conclusively identified. Current research is suggesting that these problems are likely to be the result of the interaction between a number of genes.

This is an area of current research, with new information being discovered.

The Neurological Impairment Hypothesis

This view links use of non-functional speech and speaking to oneself, along with the other behaviours outlined above, to damage that can affect different parts of the brain. Evidence bears this out, since brain-imaging techniques such as CT-Scans and MRI studies show abnormalities in the brains of children with these characteristics. Some of the parts that are thought to be involved are: the hypothalamus (a brain structure that looks like a chamber), the amygdala (two brain structures that looks like almonds), the cerebellum, the temporal lobe, and one or two other brain structures. This may explain why some children are more intellectually impaired while others are more socially impaired and still others are more communication impaired.

The developmental history of some of the children who talk to themselves or use non-functional speech shows that they may have suffered complications prior to or at birth, or complications that show up a little later, such as viral encephalitis or very high fever. This suggests that in addition to the neurological differences that are present at conception, some of these children have sustained some form of brain damage around the birth process or very early in life.

The Theory of Mind view

This position accepts the possibility that children who show non-functional speech have suffered some form of brain damage, but attempts to explain how the damage affects social functioning. This approach views the problem in psychological terms, suggesting that children who talk to themselves or engage in non-functional talk do not appreciate that other people have minds distinct from their own. Because of this, they talk to themselves, do not relate to peers, and generally do not engage in sharing information in a reciprocal way, though give and take.

The Inefficient Executive Control view

This position holds that children with various difficulties, including those with problems in attention and impulsivity, are poor at planning, organising and guiding their behaviour. Children with non-functional speech or speech to self are likely to be poor at planning ahead and organising their daily lives and activities. They cannot exclude irrelevant information from their minds since they do not have an “executive”or monitoring system around making decisions as to what to think or talk about and how to prioritise different tasks.

The Lack of Central Coherence Hypothesis

This position argues that children and adolescents with non-functional speech or speech to self are unlikely able to understand things in their world as complete “wholes” (as opposed to a collection of parts) the way typical children and adolescents do. They have a different system of processing information, focusing on the details rather than on the ‘big picture’ and they get lost in the details.

Therefore, they may not get the whole context or meaning when having conversations or when reading or listening to lectures. It may also explain why they have a narrow range of intense interests which they fully understand and are comfortable with, and are thereby fixated on talking about them

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