What Is Echolalia?

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Sarah K. Lee

Definition:

As you might guess from the echo at the start of the word, echolalia involves the repeating back of words or phrases. Your child might repeat something right after you say it, or may store it up for use later. Delayed echolalia may involve short phrases, often used in appropriate context but with the exact intonation of the original source, or stretch into long scripts from favorite TV shows and movies.

Echolalia is most strongly associated with autism, and may be considered a sign that a child has an autism spectrum disorder. However, kids with other neurological, developmental, and mental-health challenges may have some degree of echolalia as well. It can be tempting to make your child stop repeating things, or to panic because echolalia seems so strange, but it's better to realize the purposes that echolalia can serve for your child and work with that.

At the most basic level, it's an attempt at communication -- not a particularly artful attempt, yet one you can work with once you understand that it's not an attempt to be annoying, or speech to take at face value. Repetition of phrases in appropriate contexts is often a way for kids to get into a conversation, and it's possible to celebrate an understanding that puts those words in the right place while still working to put those messages into their own words.

Scripts or routine repetition of phrases (as annoying as they can be) are often extremely comforting to kids who can find the unstructured world threatening. Use them as a signal that something's agitating your child. And recognize that you, too, probably have some comfort activities that other people may find weird or unhealthy.

One other often useful aspect of echolalia is that your child may repeat phrases heard at school or other away-from-home spots where you don't have a listening ear of your own. Those repetitions can offer a pleasant record of your child's day or early warning of problems. Be aware, though, that your child may also be repeating things heard at home in appropriate contexts at school, so if you're going to have an angry tirade about a teacher, might want to do it out of your child's earshot.

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