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Echolalia and Language Development


Echolalia ("EK" + "oh" + "LAY" + "lee" + "uh") is the unsolicited repetitions of vocalizations made by another person. It is not uncommon for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to use Echolalia.


Two Types of Echolalia

Immediate echolalia: When children repeat words right after they hear them

Delayed echolalia: When children repeat words at a later time, it’s known as delayed echolalia. Delayed echolalia may seem very unusual because these sentences are often used out of context.

Echolalia and ASD

1. Why Echolalia is Often Used by Children with ASD

Typically developing children tend to begin learning language by first understanding and using single words, and then they string them together to make phrases and sentences.

Children with ASD often follow a different way of learning language. Their first attempts at language may be longer “chunks” of language (phrases or sentences), which they are not able to break down into smaller parts or put in the correct order, often misunderstanding the meaning behind what they are saying.

For example, a child might say “It’s time for you to eat” every time he hears a microwave go off, or the sound of a table being set. He knows those words have something to do with eating, but he doesn’t know what “it’s,” “time,” “for,” “you,” “to eat” mean individually, and he can’t use these words in other sentences. Because he doesn’t understand all of the words, he uses the pronoun incorrectly (using “you” instead of “me”).

We can help children who use echolalia by helping them learn to break down longer chunks of language and understand what the individual words mean so they can use them more flexibly.

2. Echolalia Purpose and Message

There may be times when children use echolalia to help themselves feel better when they’re upset, and in those cases echolalia may not be intended to send a message to someone. But there are also many situations as to why children use echolalia for communication. These include:

  • To request something (e.g. a child might say “Do you want a snack?” to ask for a snack, as he’s heard others offer snacks this way before)

  • To start engaging with someone (e.g. a child might initiate a game of Hide and Seek by saying a line from the game, like “Ready or not, here I come!”)

  • To draw someone’s attention to something (e.g. a child might draw attention to something he’s noticed by using a line he’s heard before to draw attention to something else, like “It’s raining!” when he hears a noise outside

Figuring out the meaning behind echolalia can be challenging! Looking at the context is very important, and thinking about the time the child originally heard it can help too. With a little detective work and intentional listening, it’s possible to figure out what they are trying to tell you.

3. Echolalia is a Process to Building Language

There is a purpose and use for echolalia, which can be used to help children build language. This includes:

  • Initially children repeat “chunks” of language without understanding what they mean.

  • Then, children start to modify these chunks of language. They mix and recombine words and phrases they have used.

  • As they start to understand more language, some children use shorter sentences or just use one or two words to express themselves.

Gradually, language becomes more spontaneous and flexible. Echolalia might be used occasionally, depending on child’s energy and focus. But more words and phrases are used appropriately once the child’s processing and understanding grows.

Treatment for Echolalia

Treatment for echolalia is not as easy as it seems. That’s because echolalia can serve a lot of different purposes. In order to treat echolalia correctly, you need to know why the child is repeating or echoing.

For that reason, it is recommended that echolalia be treated by a licensed speech-language pathologist who can find out exactly why the echolalia is being used.

Don’t get discouraged if your child is using echolalia. While it is hard to know how to help, remember echolalia is often used for communication intention. Take time to find the message your child is trying to give. Find a way to respond that will help redirect dependency from an Echolalic response. And most of all, remember language takes time, but your child’s use of echolalia is a building block to understanding and using language appropriately.

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