Echolalia is the repeating of others words and sentences. Often, a child with autism will display echolalia. They will repeat lines from a favorite movie or words and phrases that they hear often in their environment from their parents or others they trust. Sometimes they will repeat words immediately, while at other times it may be delayed. When the echolalia is delayed, it is often out of context and will seem unusual.
Children with autism learn language differently which is why they use echolalia. They usually start speaking in chunks of words rather than a single word like neurotypical children do. They often don’t understand the meanings of the words and phrases.
Echolalia is often a way for autistic children to soothe themselves when they are upset but in general, they are trying to communicate something. They may be trying to ask for something using phrases they have learned. Instead of saying, “I'm thirsty.” they may say something like, “Got milk?” They can also use echolalia to start a conversation or action and keep it going. A child might want to read a book with you and say, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” instead of asking, “Can we read a book?” They might use echolalia to draw attention to something. They might yell out, “What’s going down?’, to draw attention to something they have seen and want you to notice. They might be trying to protest something. If they don’t want to wear a shirt they might say, “Shirts are not for swimming.”. Finally, they may use echolalia to say “yes” to something by repeating the question back to you.
It is often hard to figure out the meaning of the echolalia. It takes patience. Look at the context of the echolalia and then think of a time when the person has heard the phrase. What were they doing?
How does echolalia work? How does it progress toward language? At first, the child is just randomly using chunks of words or phrases without knowing or understanding their meaning. Over time, they start modifying the language. They start to mix words and phrases. As they begin to understand the meaning of words, many will start shortening their sentence chunks and start using one or two words to express what they want. Finally, echolalia may fade away. The language will become more flexible. When echolalia is used it becomes appropriate to the context and the child understands the meaning of the words. You can still expect to hear echolalia if the child is sick, frustrated, angry or tired because it is harder for them to process with the added stimuli.
The important thing to remember is with a little sleuth work and becoming your own detective, you can understand a child with echolalia.