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Echolalia, a beautiful-sounding word from the combined Greek words for ‘echo’ and ‘speech’, is the repetition of another person’s spoken words. But is it an early sign of autism? Read on!

It’s a valuable part of processing speech for everyone, but for many young autistic individuals, echolalia becomes more than that – part of their persona, and in many cases, part of the ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others, including with neurotypical (NT) people. So, echolalia can indeed be an early sign of autism.

Examples of echolalia?

Three girls are shown to illustrate that echolalia can be an early sign of autism.

Echolalia can be an early sign of autism.

A simple example of echolalia is if the child replies ‘Are you hungry?’, when asked that exact question. (Or perhaps just the last word – ‘hungry’).

“But all children repeat words and phrases – mimicry is just experimenting with different sounds to hone social language skills. It is a normal stage of language development,” explain incredulous friends and family members to the concerned parent whose child exhibits a lot of echolalia.

Yes. But as with piecing together all autistic signs, it is about spotting patterns and frequencies; looking at the other elements of the child’s vocabulary; noticing how their peers talk in the same situation; and noticing whether echolalia is being used to help the child process language. Experts indicate that echolalia, as part of typical language development, has generally decreased drastically by the age of three, for typically developing children.

Immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia

Autism clincians describe both immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia; immediate echolalia could include our earlier example, e.g. if the child replies ‘Are you hungry?’ when asked that same question. It is sometimes an issue of processing (autism is after all primarily an issue of ‘processing difference’.) The child may be ‘buying time’, while they’re processing the words and their meaning. (Remember, if they’re autistic, that there are many things to process in that moment, and ‘blocking out’ the rest of their environment – e.g. the noisy running tap, the bright bathroom light, the music in the background – may require a few beats of conversation longer. Repeating a question gives them a little more processing time.)

Catch-phrases and film lines

Delayed echolalia can take the form of a catch-phrase, song lyric or a line from a TV show. Many people of all neurologies do this of course, but the ‘social norm’ is to make the phrase relevant to the conversation or situation. If the child has, for example, seen the TV show, they could be remembering the episode; but sometimes it is a phrase someone else has remembered, and makes no real sense comprehensively; it just sounds good!

Two girls are shown to illustrate that echolalia can be an early sign of autism.

Echolalia, a beautiful-sounding word from the combined Greek words for ‘echo’ and ‘speech’, is the repetition of another person’s spoken words.

It can also be a phrase the child has actually heard in real life, often linked to a strong emotion. Maybe they were told off by a teacher, or their parent shouted something in frustration; or maybe the phrase is from a pleasant birthday party, or a foreign holiday (e.g. even a foreign phrase, when the child doesn’t speak the language).

To infinity and beyond…

“All children repeat words and phrases,” reminds the helpful friend or family member, as the five year old jumps off the sofa quoting a phrase from a super-hero film. Yes, but in what situation, and what’s the frequency; are they ‘stuck’ on the phrase like a broken record? Is it said once, five times, ten times maybe? And is it when they’re pretending to be the character, or at tea time? Detective skills are required here, to spot the patterns and frequencies.

What’s behind the echolalia?

Also, it’s useful to work out what benefit the echolalia has to the child – just a nice, fun sound or phrase that is comforting, or makes them happy? Or a tool to compensate for a lack of language skills?

If it is the first example, bear in mind that autists like ‘sameness’, and things they know; many will watch a favourite film multiple times, and enjoy the predictability. Maybe a phrase is just part of their appreciation for something predictable in a film. (Also, autists are notorious wordsmiths – just look at some of the most quirky and creative songwriters out there, and ponder whether they have / had autistic traits!)

And, if the echolalia is a fun sound or phrase that is comforting, is the comfort needed for good reasons, e.g. as we’d hug a teddy because it feels nice; or, of more concern, because the child is stressed or anxious – if it’s the latter, how can the ‘stressors’ be lessened?

Also, if it’s the second scenario, and the child is over the age of three, could speech and language therapy be a consideration?

Autistic masking

Autistic individuals may develop a set of social skills or ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others,.Going back to something we mentioned previously, echolalia may form part of a ‘mask’ that helps the autistic child, or youngster with Asperger’s, fit in with others, including with neurotypical (NT) peers. This element can make it hard for some outsiders to see an issue with a child who may be autistic, but doesn’t have a diagnosis.

‘To infinity and beyond!” shouts the autistic child repeatedly to his or her playmates, as they play space rockets and space-men. It may look as if he or she is interacting with his peers, and that they’re all enjoying the game collaboratively – but are they? How are the other children conversing – what vocabulary are they using? And is the child using echolalia as a mask or ‘fitting-in’ strategy, because he or she is struggling with conventional or typical communication styles?

An undiagnosed autistic child has many cues and signs that he or she presents; but noticing them takes the aforementioned detective work, sometimes.

The websites autism-help.org and speechandlanguagekids.com have some really useful tips, articles and factsheets on echolalia.

A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. Please share our articles if you find them useful!


Also published on Medium.