Echolalia: How It Affects Autism and How to Treat It

Have you ever heard your child repeating the same words or phrases over and over again?

This behaviour, known as echolalia, is a common feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder. But what is it exactly? Does your child have autism if they do it?

In this blog post, we'll explore...

  1. what echolalia is and how it’s useful
  2. the relationship between autism and echolalia
  3. how parents can support their children who use it
Let’s dive in and learn more about this fascinating activity.
What is Echolalia

What is Echolalia?

Echolalia is when someone repeats what others say, either word for word or in a slightly altered way. It’s like they’re using someone else’s words to express their thoughts and feelings.

Speech therapists see this as normal behaviour in children who are learning to speak. This is known as developmental echolalia. Children usually stop using it at the age of three as they start to form their phrases and sentences.

Also known as “scripting,” you might notice that it is used by autistic children or even in adults with autism. But it can also be a symptom of other conditions (like brain injury or speech delay).

A few examples and instances of echolalia may include:

    • repeating phrases from TV or other media – A child might repeat a phrase the same way they heard it on TV or in a movie
    • asking / parroting questions – A child may repeat a question instead of answering it.
    • repeating phrases from other people – They may repeat phrases like “say hi” instead of saying “hi”. They may also repeat positive phrases, like “thank you” or “I love you.”
    • talking about a routine or schedule – A child might repeat a phrase when they enter a room or begin an activity (“It’s bath time!”).

Sometimes it can be hard to understand what they’re trying to say. Knowing a little bit about echolalia can help you figure out the meaning behind their message.

Echolalia as a Language Learning Tool

Echolalia as a Language Learning Tool

Developing children start language learning by understanding and using single words. Eventually, they learn to combine them to make full sentences. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) navigate language learning differently.

Because of the challenges of autism, a child may be able to imitate speech sounds, but not understand what they are saying right away. It may also be easier for them to pick up longer phrases that they can’t break down and analyze. And so, they “echo” what others are saying, often without understanding every word, and they also cannot use those words to form their sentences.

This is also known as a unique form of “Gestalt language learning”. This means that children start with big chunks of language.

They use these chunks as a whole to respond to a situation, instead of using the individual meaning of words. With time, they will learn to break it down and use more flexible language.

While it’s seen in children with ASD, it can also be adapted by children who aren’t part of the spectrum. Echolalia may not always be a hindrance. It can also be a good foundation for further learning.

Is Echolalia a Warning Sign of Autism

Is Echolalia a Warning Sign of Autism?

While it could be a sign of autism, it might not always be the case.

Young kids may use echolalia as their first attempt at trying to communicate ideas. Before the age of 3, they are picking up key phrases either from you or their favourite show, and use them often. Echolalia is often the first stepping stone to building language skills.

Your child should eventually use their own words and intonations to express thoughts and feelings. If they are still often repeating expressions after the age of 3, it may be time to reach out for an evaluation.

An Autism diagnosis may be common, but it can also result in other concerns such as poor language development or language delay. A proper evaluation will give you a clearer picture of what your child needs and what to do next.

Reasons Why People with Autism Use Echolalia

There are also other reasons why autistic children may use echolalia. Here are a few common reasons why they use it in their everyday life.

1) Self Stimulation (Stimming)
Stimming is a common behaviour for those with autism to calm themselves and self-regulate. It’s usually known as repetitive physical behaviour (tapping fingers, twirling hair ends). However, children with autism use echolalia for stimming as well.
2) Self-Aid in Processes and Stressful Interactions

Scripting can help lighten the burden of thinking of a new thought or response. This can be especially useful for repetitive interactions (like answering “How are you?”). Prefabricating their immediate response can give them more time to prepare for the conversation ahead.

Practicing self-talk can also help them work through a difficult process. They may use phrases they have heard from others or from videos they’ve seen especially in stressful situations.

3) Expressing Wants and Requests

Instead of coming up with an entire expression to make a request, a person with echolalia uses something they’ve already heard. For example, they may ask “Do you want ice cream?” even if they are the one that wants it.

It’s also possible for them to repeat a catchphrase from a TV show that they want to watch, instead of formally asking if they can watch that show.

4) Communicating Thoughts and Ideas

Scripting is also used in communication in general. While it may not make sense at first, grasping the context of the repeated phrase can go a long way in understanding what they are trying to say.

For example, children with ASD may repeat back phrases they agree to, even if it’s a form of a question. If they repeat back “Do you want to play outside?” upon you asking it, it may mean that yes, or simply that they heard what you said and don’t have an answer yet.

Echolalia in Adults

Echolalia in Adults

Some adults with autism will still tend to use scripts. They may revert to it to work through difficult conversations or to stay on task on a project or meeting.

Scripting can be a valuable tool for autistic individuals. But it is important to recognize that it is not a replacement for developing strong communication and social skills.

Working with therapists (at any age) can help them develop strategies for effective communication. Autistic individuals can get comfortable in social situations with the right support.

Types of Echolalia

Types of Echolalia

There are different ways to classify echolalia, depending on how the child is using it. Here are a few comparisons:

Delayed Echolalia vs Immediate Echolalia

These two types are about how long it takes for them to repeat the phrase.

Delayed Echolalia happens when someone memorizes a phrase and uses it at a later time. In children, you may see this as repeating phrases from a cartoon episode from a few hours ago.

Immediate Echolalia is where they repeat what they hear a few moments after it’s heard. They usually do this to someone speaking to them and is a way of responding and being involved.

Functional vs Non-Functional Echolalia

These categories state how echolalia is being used.

Functional (or Interactive) Echolalia is when the repeated phrase expresses something to someone. It may function as a request, a response to something said to them, giving new information or getting attention.

Non-Functional (or Non-Interactive) Echolalia is when repeated phrases usually don’t mean anything when they are used. They may be repeating those words to calm themselves, or self-stimulate. One example is when a child repeats the dialogue or lyrics of a favourite song or show. They can also use non-functional echolalia to help process steps to a task (“Open faucet”, “Wash hands..”, etc.)

There’s another type called mitigated echolalia, where a child makes some small changes in the phrases they’ve memorized. In this type, a child may already be developing their expressive language skills, leading to more varied responses and expressions.

Tips on How to Deal With Echolalia

Tips on How to Deal With Echolalia

It can get frustrating to have your child repeating what they hear and what you say with no end. However, it can be a crucial part of their language learning, regardless of whether or not they have ASD or other conditions.

Here are a few ways to make use of echolalia as a learning and practice tool:

1) Modelling Language

Since they are already prone to repeating what you say, this is an excellent time to model short phrases.

Simple sentences like “I like … ” and “I want… ” are universal expressions where they can eventually change the word at the end. Saying things like “Let’s walk to school!” or “Time for lunch!” can also give them more examples to repeat back in context.

2) Manage Key Phrases

Instead of saying “Are you thirsty?”, which doesn’t make sense when it’s repeated back as an answer, you can simply ask “Thirsty?” to help reduce incorrect phrases. Manage the repeated phrases for them to make sense as a response.

3) Use Names, Not Pronouns

Trying to understand who you’re talking about can be frustrating and difficult to process. Minimize the use of pronouns and use more concrete names so you can minimize their thinking load and they can understand you better.

4) Manage Open-Ended Questions

Most “Wh” questions are open-ended. It requires more processing for the child to understand and respond accordingly. If they are repeating these kinds of questions, try giving them choices instead (“Do you want to play with the ball or bunny?”).

This will still give them something to repeat back to you, but they will be more comfortable with the example word. Once they are used to this method, you can try to reintroduce open-ended questions from time to time.

5) Use Visual Aids

If you’re giving them choices in a question, try holding the items in each hand. Visual cues like these can help them associate specific words with the item, instead of just trying to remember or understand what they mean.

6) Offer Corrections

Your child is observing what you say. If they are using the wrong statements, you can repeat back the proper way to say them. If they are saying “Do you want the bunny?” to mean it as a request, you can say, “No, but maybe you do. Say ‘I want bunny’.” They may start to understand the difference between the statements.

Making It Easy Through Speech Therapy

Making It Easy Through Speech Therapy

Echolalia can be manageable, but making more progress is possible with the right guide. It’s a great launch pad for speech-language pathologists and parents to get children engaged with language learning.

Having a speech therapist alongside you will help you discover new tips and ways to effectively use and manage echolalia. Language learning is different for everyone, so they can also give personalized recommendations as your child progresses.
For those diagnosed with ASD, scripting can also be a great tool to stay in the loop of social situations. However, improving their reactions to social cues will have a more long-term effect compared to relying on scripts.

Interventions such as speech therapy can help not just with language learning, but also with social skills. With sufficient support and practice, your child will be a better speaker in their daily life.

Interested in helping your child overcome their language barriers and challenges? Reach out to us today and let’s work on it together.

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Lauren Templeton - Apheleia Speech Therapy
Lauren Templeton

Owner & Speech-Language Pathologist

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