Echolalia is a condition where the patient exhibits echoes and repeats sounds, phrases, or sentences. This is a condition that often manifests in children with an autism spectrum disorder.

It might come in the form of common phrases used by family members, or even television shows. Though they become increasingly repetitive over time.

It’s also worth noting that there are different forms of echolalia. How and when they occur can give you insights into an autistic child’s state of mind.

The Different Types of Echolalia

There are different forms of echolalia, and how the habit progresses. Each has its own notable differences that might help you better understand some of your child’s attempts at expression, as well as times when they are simply parroting back something they recently heard.

Immediate Echolalia

Immediate echolalia is used to describe times when a child repeats words right after hearing them. This is often related to short-term memory recall.

Delayed Echolalia

Delayed Echolalia is used to describe when words are repeated after a significant delay. In some cases of delayed echolalia, the sentence or phrase might seem unusual as it’s often spoken out of context.

The Link Between Echolalia & Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children usually learn the language first by understanding and using simple words and phrases. With practice, they gradually start to assemble them together to create increasingly longer more complex phrases and sentences.

However, children with autism spectrum disorder tend learn language differently. Their early attempts at language often use blocks of phrases and partial sentences broken up into units of language rather than in smaller parts. This often requires memorization, which can be grammatically complex. This makes it more challenging for them to construct their own unique sentences, making it hard for them to be clearly understood.

This often leads to the child using specific repetitive phrases that are associated with specific events and activities. When some part of their daily routine occurs, it can act as a trigger for a memorized repetitive phrase.

One possible example of this might be a parent telling a child that it’s time to brush their teeth. The child with ASD then repeats the phrase “Time to brush teeth,” repetitively.

While they might associate the words and phrases with the act of cleaning their teeth, they might not fully understand what each word means.

Sometimes it’s possible to help a child who uses echolalia as a learning tool. The process starts by teaching the child how to break down longer phrases into individual words that they can gradually use with greater verbal flexibility.

The Different Speech Patterns of Echolalia

The meaning and language connections of echolalia can come in different speech forms. Each can provide you with insights into the thoughts or emotions your autistic child is trying to express.

Echolalia & Self-Stimulation

Sometimes known as “Stimming” this form of echolalia speech pattern is often a type of calming strategy. In these instances, spoken repetition is used to cope with sensory challenges.

Prefabrication Echolalia

This form of echolalia speech pattern employs repeated phrases and sayings in an attempt to communicate when the child finds the situation too stressful to use their original words.

Self-Talk Echolalia

This is an echolalia speech pattern that might help the child to talk themselves as a coping mechanism to get through a difficult process. The repetitive phrases often come from parents, teachers, or even the child’s favorite television show.

Depending on the situation it might be possible for an autistic child to use echolalia for different purposes at the same time. This can complicate the process of understanding exactly what the child is trying to express.

The good news is that oftentimes, the various forms of echolalia serve as an important early step toward more traditional forms of verbal communication.

Echolalia In Functional Communication

Sometimes a child’s coping skills allow them to use repetitive phrases to express themselves. This might include repeating a question you’ve asked them such as “Do you want a glass of water.” When the child says it repeatedly, it can be their way of telling you that they are thirsty.

You can sometimes use this mechanism to initiate an interaction or keep it going. Especially if your child is using a lot of associative phrases. They might say “Ready or Not Here I Come” when they want to play a game of Hide and Seek.

This type of associative communication requires you to build a deep understanding of the things your child takes interest in and how they are most likely to use them. They might use expressions from their favorite TV show to tell you that they want to watch that show. So, it requires a fluidity of understanding of their interests and any new expressions that they pick up along the way.

Many parents who have a lot of experience interacting with a child with echolalia find that it’s easier to understand the context if they remember the time when the child might have heard the phrase. You might even find that it helps to keep a language journal can be helpful too so that you can let other people know who are involved in a child’s life and what those phrases really mean.

Using Echolalia To Help Model Language

There are a few ways that echolalia can be used to help model language. This includes simple phrases like “Time for bed” rather than asking “Are you ready to go to bed?”

As you model these short phrases your child can start learning them, and you can make them longer and longer phrases. In time you might find that they are speaking using long, memorized sentences. In a scenario like this, the child needs simplicity in the beginning to contextual meaning with the words. This is the first step in helping them to learn to say longer phrases and sentences.
Ideally, you want to stick to phrases that have a direct contextual connection. This tends to lead to greater success over time than asking questions, which often require more verbal processing. Also, having a question answered with a question can obscure clarity for both of you.