treating echolalia for children with autism
6 min · Special Needs
July 18, 2023

How to Treat Echolalia in a Child with Autism

Repetition and imitation are important parts for speech and language acquisition and is a natural process in growing up.However, children with autism have difficulties in this area. You might be wondering if your autistic child has echolalia.

There are certain signs that your child might have it, and you can read more about how you, as a parent, can understand it better.

What is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the repetition of phrases and words. It is a unique form of verbal imitation. Toddlers learn to speak by imitating the sounds they hear.

After a while, typically developing children will start to use language to communicate.

When they are 3, most children communicate with others by selecting and crafting phrases. They use language in their own way to communicate in novel ways.

Echolalia is one of the most common characteristics of communication in autistic people. While it is a natural process of language acquisition, it becomes a sign of ASD when repetition continues after toddler years.

What are the Reasons for Echolalia in Autistic People?

There might be a couple of reasons for echolalia in an individual. They may be trying to:

  • maintain a conversation,
  • attract attention of someone,
  • interact with people,
  • ask for things.

These are some of the common reasons. When it comes to autism, echolalia may have other purposes.

Many children with autism use words. They sometimes have a vast vocabulary. But they use these words in the same order, in the same tone like those they heard from someone else or from the TV.

There may be several purposes for echolalia, which may change over time. Also, there may be a couple of purposes for a person at the same time.

  • As a sensory outlet. Some autistic children and adults imitate speech without really understanding the meaning. This may be a way to calm themselves. Echolalia in this case can be thought of as “stimming”.

  • To communicate ideas. It may be a way for autistic individuals to communicate ideas when it is too difficult to formulate their own novel speech patterns. They use prefabricated phrases and scripts. This is an important step for many children with autism for typical forms of speech.

  • To self-aid. Echolalia can be a tool for individuals with autism for aiding themselves. The child might talk to themselves through a difficult process. They might use the words and phrases they heard from their parents or on television.

  • For building relationships. Echolalia could be used as a relationship building tool. Individuals with autism might use it to create social closeness. It also enables the autistic individuals to interact and engage with others.

  • To communicate wants. Echolalia provides an autistic child a way to inform others about what the child wants. This may be a way to indicate affirmation, calling, or a request.

Forms of Echolalia

There are two forms of echolalia, namely the immediate and delayed echolalia.

  • Immediate echolalia is where the autistic individual repeats something back immediately. An immediate echo. For instance, a parent may ask “Do you want a drink?” and the child would immediately respond as “You want a drink.”

In this case, the child might actually want a drink. But instead of using a novel phrase like “yes, please”, the child echoes what the parent says.

This form of echolalia is found to be a way to be involved in the conversation. Also a way of communicating that the individual heard what the other person is saying.

They may also be having time to process their real answer while giving the parent one.

Immediate echolalia might lead to miscommunication. The child usually echoes the last thing said, but they may actually want to give another answer.

  • Delayed echolalia is where the autistic individual memorizes a phrase. This phrase or even a paragraph may be heard from a book, or a TV show. Then, it is repeated after a period of time following the hearing of the phrase.

Children with autism may have great aural memories. This helps them recite the things they heard from memory.

When a child repeats certain lines or phrases, or even large portions of scripts that are more complex than they can formulate, that usually indicates delayed echolalia.

It might not always be suited to the situation, or even appropriate. A repeated sentence may actually be a significant memory or emotion.

What Causes Delayed Echolalia?

As mentioned, echolalia in autistic individuals serves a couple of purposes. There are a couple of reasons as to why an autistic individual echoes phrases.

Delayed echolalia may be a way of;

  • self-stimulation. Autistic individuals may find it enjoyable to repeat the words or sentences. This may provide them satisfaction. However, this may also lead to inappropriate interactions in daily life.

  • communicating their mood. Individuals with ASD may relate certain phrases or words with certain feelings. For instance, when you are angry and say “I’m late”, the individual with delayed echolalia may associate anger with this phrase. Later on, whenever they are angry, they may link anger with that phrase and say “I’m late” to express their mood.

Functional and Non-Functional Echolalia

Echolalia may be non-functional for some children with ASD. Non-functional echolalia means that the words and phrases are not used to mean anything.

Non-functional echoing of real words may be confusing to parents and caregivers. Because although it seems like the child is using meaningful language, it may not be the case.

A child may be able to memorize an entire script of a cartoon episode. But at the same time, they might have no understanding as to who the characters are or the meaning of the story.

In this case, repeating the memorized sounds may have a calming effect on some of the autistic children.

There is also functional echolalia. In this case, a memorized phrase can be used in a meaningful way.

It serves a purpose. For instance, the child may hear the phrase “You got coffee?” on TV.

Later on, the child may say “Got coffee?” in the same way they heard it on TV to indicate that they are thirsty. This is using echolalia in a functional manner. The child really wants a drink, but is not using his own phrases.

How to Know if your Child Has Functional or Non-Functional Echolalia?

Memorized sentences and phrases may sound suited to the situation. They may seem correct. But that might not be the case.

Your child may answer the question “What did you have for lunch?” with “Ham sandwich.”

But this answer may mean that they had a sandwich of some sort and remembered the ham sandwich from a TV show.

Similarly, they may use the phrase functionally to express what they are thinking, but in the wrong context. There is no simple answer to this question.

What Can Be Done About Echolalia?

Echolalia can be a hindrance in daily life. However, eliminating it completely would be a bad idea. Echolalia can serve a valuable function in the lives of children with autism.

Functional echolalia could be really helpful. This means that your child has developed a way to communicate their wants and needs.

With the help of a speech therapist, this way of communication can be expanded.

In the case of non-functional echolalia, it may be a great point to start for speech and play therapy. The child may repeat phrases they memorized over and over. This may be a way to calm their anxiety.

Also, this behavior could indicate the child’s interest in whatever that they are repeating.

Either way, play and speech therapy conducted with a professional therapist could help your child to use their language skills more appropriately in time.

This echolalic speech of your child will become more typical and functional with directed practice.

Moreover, using phrases and words to self-calm is always a better alternative to problem behaviors.

This means that it would not be a great idea to eliminate echolalia altogether as it serves a purpose.

Last Updated: 23 December 2022


This article is examined by Clinical Child Psychologist and Ph. D. Researcher Kevser Çakmak, and produced by Otsimo Editorial Team.

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This post does not provide medical advice. See Additional Information.