Echolalia is a form of verbal imitation. When a child uses echolalia, she repeats words or phrases she hears other people use. It is one of the most common characteristics of communication in some people with autism. Recent research has helped us see that echolalia can be a bridge to meaningful speech with communicative intent.
Children who engage in echolalia often learn through a gestalt language-processing style. They learn language as whole phrases or units. They will first assign a single unit of meaning to longer segments or spoken language. Ultimately, echolalia provides a way for people with autism to affirm, call, request, label, protest, relate information, complete verbal routines and give directives.
How to Respond to a Person Using Echolalia
If you have a person in your life who uses echolalia, here are a few simple things you can do.
Facilitate verbal imitation
Structure your interactions so individuals will initiate interactions. Reduce the number of questions you ask. Asking too many questions will result in the individual just repeating the question you ask. Instead, model what you want the individual to say to initiate communicative interactions. Use comments, affirmations, and reflective questions, which can lead to communication with higher levels of comprehension.
Observe individuals carefully to assess comprehension and figure out what underlying functions the echolalia may have. Look for signs of comprehension, such as accompanying gaze, gestures, and body orientation.
Avoid teaching rote phrases
Aim for teaching true, symbolic language and not scripted phrases or sentences. Scripted phrases and sentences may not be well comprehended by the individual.
Opportunities for practice
Provide opportunities to practice language with peers in natural, social communication settings.
Stiegler, L. (2015). Examining the echolalia literature: Where do speech-language pathologists stand? American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 24, 750-762.
Photo by Michelle Morgado, MS, CCC-SLP