Why Does My Child With Autism Echo Words and Phrases?

mom and son reading
mom and son reading. mom and son reading

Echolalia is literally the precise repetition of words and sounds. Children with autism are often echolalic, which means they do use words (and sometimes even use those words appropriately) -- but their words are said in the same order, and usually in the same tone, as those they've heard on a TV show, in a book, from their teacher, or from some other source.

Echolalia is a unique form of speech - and though it's thought of as a "symptom," it can also be a great place to start working with your child.

What does echolalia sound like?

Sometimes echolalia is immediate. For example, mom says "Johnny, do you want a drink?" and Johnny responds "You want a drink." In this case, Johnny is actually responding appropriately to mom's question, and may very well want a drink. But rather than using a novel phrase such as "yes please," or "I'd like lemonade," he is echoing her precise language. 

Just as often echolalia is delayed. A child hears a line on TV such as "got milk?" and later, when he's thirsty, may say "got milk?" in exactly the same tone and accent as the ad on TV.  Again, in this case, the child is using the memorized or repeated phrase in a functional manner -- he is asking for a drink, and his request is understood -- but he is not coming up with his own phraseology.

In both of these cases, the echolalia may sound strange or even rude - but in fact it's a method your child has developed for communicating his wants and needs, verbally.

The fact that he has done so means that he is able to do much more, with the help of a speech therapist.

In some cases, echolalia is less functional - but it's usually a good starting point for speech and/or play therapy. For example, a child might memorize entire segments of a favorite video, and recite them over and over.

The child's purpose in reciting may be to calm himself or reduce anxiety - but the recitation may also indicate a real fascination for aspects of the video.

In this case, play therapy such as Floortime and speech therapy with a therapist familiar with pragmatic speech therapy can help your child to use her language skills more and more appropriately. In the long run, your child's echolalic speech will almost certainly become more typical and functional.

Learn More About Autism Symptoms, Types of Autism and Autism Diagnosis


Schuler A.L. . Beyond echoplaylia: promoting language in children with autism.Autism. 2003 Dec;7(4):455-69.

Damico JS, Nelson RL. Interpreting problematic behavior: systematic compensatory adaptations as emergent phenomena in autism. Clin Linguist Phon. 2005 Jul-Aug;19(5):405-17.

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