What is echolalia and why does it happen?
You may have noticed that sometimes your child repeats something you said over and over again in a seemingly meaningless way. This pattern of behaviour is termed “echolalia” because the person is echoing the speech in their environment. Research has found that echolalia is in fact automatic and unintentional, and usually occurs right after they hear the original sentence (immediate echolalia) or shortly after they hear the original sentence (delayed echolalia). What your child says can often be very literal, exact and automatic but it is important to note that they do not always copy what they’ve heard word-for-word. In addition, because this behaviour is often automatic, your child is likely experiencing difficulty in stopping their repetitive speech. Researchers have also noted that how echolalic your child’s speech is can be an indication of how severe their autism is.
Echolalia in your child’s speech has been thought to be a way for them to rehearse what they’ve heard, and may contribute to the development of their narrative skills (their ability to tell stories or describe events). Although your child may repeat a long sentence, research finds that your child is only attaching one meaning to the whole thing. So for example, if your child says something like “timetotakeabath”, they may only really be attaching the meaning “bath” to the whole sentence. Over time, children who have echolalic speech may begin to isolate individual words from the sentence and recognize them.
Research has also found that immediate echolalia is more likely to be used to make a request, provide information, answer yes, and to keep the interaction going. On the other hand, delayed echolalia was more likely to signal that the child had some understanding of what was just said. In fact, research has advised against asking too many questions or making a lot of commands because these are more likely to increase echolalia in your child. Instead, they recommend things such as having a short turn in conversation and maintaining less control over the topic.
Although echolalia may seem like a set-back, a written guide for parents with children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) notes that echolalia is in fact a good sign, and shows the development of your child’s communication. An excerpt goes on to say:
“Soon [your child] may begin to use these repeated words and phrases to communicate something to you. For example, after [they repeat] what you say, he may look at you or move closer to an object. Or [they] may remember the words you use to ask [them] if [they] want a drink, and later use these memorized words to ask a question of [their] own. The words your child learns from echolalia opens the door to meaningful communication.”
In sum, research has found that children and other individuals with ASD use echolalia to build relationships, and can in fact be an encouraging sign.
Written By: Julia Krylowski
Grossi, D., Marcone, R., Cinquegrana, T., & Gallucci, M. (2013). On the differential nature of induced and incidental echolalia in autism. Journal of intellectual disability research, 57(10), 903-912. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2788.2012.01579.x.
Rydell, P. J., & Mirenda, P. (1991). The effects of two levels of linguistic constraint on echolalia and generative language production in children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 21(2), 131-157. doi: 10.1007/BF02284756.
Stiegler, L. N. (2015). Examining the echolalia literature: Where do speech-language pathologists stand? American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 24(4), 750-762. doi: 10.1044/2015_AJSLP-14-0166.