Understanding Echolalia

Happy girl communicating with caregiver by touching her lips
Echolalia is a repetitive speech behaviour, where words or sounds from another source (like a video, song or previous conversation) are echoed back.

You might see it incorrectly referred to as ‘purposeless repetition’, but it most definitely has a purpose (lots of them in fact, more on that in a moment). Just like pronoun reversal, echolalia is actually a typical part of speech development. Most kids do it at some point, they just do it at a younger age or for not quite as long as some autistic children might do.

There are two types of echolalia – immediate (repeating something that was just heard) and delayed (repeating something that was heard some time ago). The functions of each vary across people and often overlap, so let’s take a look at what some of those might be.

Note: I’m talking about echolalia in autistic children here, but it’s not a behaviour that’s unique to just kids or autism.

Functions of echolalia

Filling in the gaps

Sometimes when kids start to notice that conversations have a back-and-forth rhythm to them, they want to join in but aren’t yet ready to understand how to do that. They know that it’s their turn to say something, they just doesn’t know what that something is. So they fill the gaps with stuff that sounds like it fits.

Labelling things

When language is developing, we start out by simply repeating the sounds we hear attached to things (‘backpack’). Eventually those sounds get broken down and seen as individual words or building blocks that can be combined in different ways to mean something else (wearing the backpack on your tummy and calling it a ‘frontpack’).

Echolalia can sometimes just be an extension of that early labelling stage of language, with more elaborate labels created by kids who are physically able to repeat complex sounds but aren’t yet able to work out which part of the sound is the relevant bit (using ‘sit in your chair’ to mean ‘dinner’).

Calming down

Routine can be comforting for autistic people, making them feel safe and secure in a world that can often seem random and confusing to them. Saying the same familiar sounds in a predictable way when they’re anxious or scared can be a way of getting some routine amidst the chaos and calming themselves.

Stimming

Short for self-stimulation, it basically means actions that you do over and over to either calm or excite your nervous system. And echolalia is no different – it’s a repetitive behaviour that probably just feels good.

Practice

When you learn to do something new it’s fun to practice. Repeating stuff over and over is like saying ‘Hey look what I can do!’ – although in this case it’s probably more like ‘Cool I can make that popping sound with my lips, I’m going to do it three hundred times until I get it perfect’.

Having fun

Let’s face it, some things are just really fun to say (I like ‘skedaddle’). Most kids like to hear the sound of their own voice, and language can be fascinating to them.

Processing

As an adult you’ve likely had so much practice with your native spoken language that your brain processes it instantly. Listening to a foreign language is a different story – suddenly all you hear is a cacophony of sounds which you recognise as language, but it all runs together and you have a hard time separating it into words and working out what they mean.

This is what it’s like for someone who’s just starting to get a grip on spoken language. They need a moment to process what was just said, to replay it and work out the meaning (or double-check that they said the right thing). For some kids this replay happens out loud instead of in their head, and this may be one of the reasons for echolalia.

Recognition and memories

Sometimes the situation can act as a prompt for recalling a script attached to a specific feeling or memory. Maybe they play the same ad jingle every time you go to the supermarket, so now your daughter repeats it whenever she sees a shopping cart.

My favourite example of this was being stuck on Haunted Mansion at Disneyland for twenty minutes in front of a Nightmare Before Christmas display, while they looped a safety message over and over. That Christmas whenever my son was given a gift he would happily say ‘Please remain seated’ in Spanish.

Communication

Some experiences can be too complex or overwhelming to express verbally, especially moods and emotions. Autistic people might sometimes choose to share these experiences by using a script instead, repeating part of a conversation or movie quote that captures that same emotion or memory.

For example, your son might say “now pick a brush” to tell you that he did art at school today, or “Nemo, where are you?” to let you know that he’s feeling scared.

Protection

Echolalia can act as a buffer against the anxiety that lots of autistic people feel when sharing their thoughts and feelings. Speaking your mind can be an overwhelming experience, especially for people who find it difficult to anticipate or interpret the reactions of others. It can leave them feeling exposed and vulnerable, so in these situations it might feel safer to use someone else’s words instead.

The bottom line

Looking at all those possible functions for echolalia it amazes me that anyone could ever call it purposeless. Figuring out why someone is using echolalia will help you to communicate with them – part two looks at some ways you can do that.

Last updated 23 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.