Why Does My Child With Autism Echo Words and Sounds?

Echolalia can be an important first step toward spoken language.

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

When autistic children do start to speak, they may not do so in the same way as other children. Many start out by copying words they hear, rather than attempting to use new phrases and words they come up with on their own. This "echoing" can be an important first step in learning to communicate verbally, or it can be just another repetitive autistic behavior.


What Is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the precise repetition, or echoing, 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 it may be one of the first ways in which your child uses speech to communicate. Thus, while it can be described as a symptom of autism, it can also be a great place for a parent or speech language therapist to start working with your child. On the other hand, in some cases, echolalia really has no communicative meaning at all.

What Does Echolalia Sound Like?

Sometimes echolalia is an immediate echo. For example, mom says "Johnny, do you want a drink?" and Johnny responds "You want a drink." In this case, Johnny may actually be 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 watches an episode of Sesame Street and, later that day, is heard reciting interactions between Bert and Ernie or singing a snatch of the theme song.

Children with autism may have extraordinary aural memories, and in some cases can actually recite large portions of favorite movies complete with intonation and accents. Sometimes an autistic child may use Ernie's words for a useful purpose of his own; sometimes the words are just repeated sounds.

Functional and Non-Functional Echolalia

For some autistic children, echolalia is simply the reiteration of meaningless sounds. This non-functional echoing of real words in logical order can be very misleading to parents, as it sounds like their child is using meaningful language when that is not actually the case. A child may be able to recite the entire script of a Sponge Bob episode but have no understanding of who the characters are, what they're saying, or what the story means. It may be the case that the reiteration of memorized sounds has a calming effect on some children on the spectrum.

Functional echolalia, however, is the appropriate use of memorized phrases for a real purpose. For example, 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, but this time he is using it 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.

When echolalia is functional, it's a cause for celebration: your child has developed a tool 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.

Even when echolalia is less functional 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 either 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.


S​teigler, LN. Examining the echolalia literature: where do speech-language pathologists stand? Am J Speech Lang Pathol. 2015 Nov;24(4):750-62. 

Van Santen, Jan P. H., et al. Quantifying repetitive speech in autism spectrum disorders and language impairment.” Autism research : official journal of the International Society for Autism Research 6.5 (2013): 10.1002/aur.1301. PMC. Web. 16 July 2017.