Echolalia Isn't Meaningless - Here's what It Could Mean
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Many people may believe that echolalia, often used by autistic people, is meaningless and doesn't serve a purpose. However, new research has shown that this is not the case. Although we may not understand the intent of the echolalic phrase, this does not make it meaningless. If we can figure out what the child's intentions are when they communicate using echolalia, we may also be able to understand them better.
What is Echolalia?
Echolalia is when an autistic individual repeats, or echoes, words, sounds, or phrases that they have heard. The repetitions could be of anything - catchphrases, TV theme songs, movie quotes, train announcements or a saying that a family member says often.
Echolalia could be immediate, i.e. repeating the phrase straight after hearing it, or it could be delayed, i.e. where it is repeated later and/or in different environments (it could even happen weeks, months or years later!).
It could be said that echolalia is a normal part of childhood linguistic development. Many children learn to develop vocabulary by repeating words they hear around them. However, for children who are autistic, their linguistic skills can appear to get stuck at this point and a majority of their verbal communication can be echolalic.
What Has Research Taught Us About Echolalia?
Typically, as verbal language increases, echolalia diminishes so it is important to keep encouraging echolalia whilst a child is using it as, at that time, it is their form of communication and it is up to us to understand their intentions.
One of the most extensive and influential pieces of research into echolalia is The Functions of Immediate Echolalia in Autistic Children by Barry Prizant and Judith Duchan. In this article, they explained different possible functions of immediate echolalia and included clear examples of each. When you understand that there are functions of echolalia, you can respond appropriately while modeling other communication strategies.
Here are the example functions taken directly from the article;
Functions of Immediate Echolalia When Directed at Someone Else
These are utterances used as turn-taking fillers during an alternating verbal exchange (conversation). It can also provide thinking and/or processing time for the person with ASD who has some verbal skills. For those who struggle with spontaneous verbal communication, echoing does allow participation in a back and forth interaction, even if it is adult lead.
Adult speaker: “Where did you go Sunday?”
Echolalic speaker: Child repeats, “Where did you go Sunday?” then, gives a quick look to the adult.
Adult speaker: “Did you go to Grandma’s house?”
Echolalic speaker: Says, “Did you go to Grandma’s house?” then, the child again gives a quick look at the speaker.
A child with ASD who has some spontaneous verbal skills might eventually add, “No Grandma’s house; go zoo.” Basically, they needed stalling time to understand and formulate an answer.
These are utterances used to label objects, actions or locations.
Adult speaker: As he checks the nearly empty cookie jar, he says, “I better buy some more cookies.”
Echolalic speaker: As they also touch the cookie jar, they say, “I better buy some cookies.” No verbal response or action is required from the adult speaker. However, the child does not attempt to take a cookie out of the jar.
These are utterances used to indicate a yes answer to a question or to request objects or others' actions.
Adult speaker: “Do you want some juice?”
Echolalic speaker: “Do you want some juice?” then, they look at the pitcher and continue to hold out their hand waiting for a glass of juice.
Functions of Immediate Echolalia When Directed at Self
Utterances produced with no apparent interactive meaning or communicative intent; often spoken during states of high arousal (e.g., fear, frustration, pain). But, these utterances do not appear to be an attempt at self-regulation.
Adult speaker: “What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?”
Echolalic speaker: As they continue to walk and flap their hands; they intermittently scream and grasp their hands. Then, they begin to say to themselves “What’s wrong? Why are you screaming?” repeatedly.
Utterances used as a processing aid, followed by another utterance or action indicating comprehension of echoed utterance.
Adult speaker: “Give this to Jim.” (Hands over the notebook.)
Echolalic speaker: They turn around, start pacing, then they softly say “Give this to Jim” several times. The pacing stops and they walk over to Jim. Then they give the notebook to him.
In other words, it helps keep the demand in his working memory and his actions show he comprehends what was said.
Utterances which serve as a means to regulate one’s own actions. Usually, these are produced in synchrony with motor activity.
Adult speaker: “Don’t jump on the bed.”
Echolalic speaker: They repeat “Don’t jump on the bed” several times to themselves as they gradually decrease the jumping, ceases the action, and finally get off the bed.
Functions of Delayed Echolalia
Delayed echolalia is more difficult to understand. A lot of times, there is no obvious meaning for the listener but his doesn’t mean the phrases have no meaning at all.
To understand the functions of delayed echolalia, it is helpful to think of it as a chunk of language that has been stored to memory but without regard to its literal meaning.
Any situation or emotion can trigger the use of the speech, even if it seems to have no connection to the situation. What I mean by this is, for example, if a child is feeling a certain emotion and hears a phrase from a TV commercial, then later (weeks, months) feels the same emotion, they may then repeat the phrase from the TV commercial. So delayed echolalia can, in fact, be your child’s way of expressing their emotions.
The functions of echolalia can be different from person to person. But the following examples from the Analysis of Functions of Delayed Echolalia in Autistic Children are some common meanings to help you decipher what your child may be telling you.
Functions of Delayed Echolalia When Directed at Someone Else
Utterances used as turn fillers in an alternating verbal exchange.
Adult speaker: “What did you do this weekend?”
Echolalic speaker: “Don’t take your trunks off in the swimming pool.”
Adult speaker: “Oh, you went swimming?”
Echolalic speaker: “Put your goggles on. Then you won’t get chlorine in your eyes.”
Utterances which complete familiar verbal routines initiated by others.
Adult speaker: “Wash your hands.”
Echolalic speaker: As they wash his hands, they say, “Good boy./girl” They said this because their teacher or parent typically says the same phrase as a way of reinforcing completion of an act.
The function is to indicate that they are “all done” with a task. It’s important to establish routines that reinforce the completion of daily tasks because it aids in transitions and independence.
Utterances offering new information not apparent from situational context (may be initiated or respondent).
You are just about to prepare a snack and ask a child "What would you like for snack?"
Then the child begins singing a song about a brand name luncheon meat as a way of communicating that they would like a sandwich for lunch.
Utterances labelling objects or actions in the environment.
An adult and child are sorting through videotapes. Then the child picks up a Sesame Street video and begins singing a specific song as he makes a quick look at the adult.
Functions of Delayed Echolalia When Directed at Someone Else
Utterances produced with low volume followed by louder interactive production. Appears to be practice for subsequent production.
The adult asks, “What do you want to eat?” Echolalic child softly says to themself several times, “I want a cracker, please.” They then look toward the adult and say, “I want a cracker, please” at normal voice volume.
Observation or Labelling
Utterances labeling objects or actions in an environment with no apparent communicative intent. This may also be a form of practice for learning new language.
The echolalic speaker notes an open window. Then they walk in big circles repeating, “Window. Close the window. It’s cold in here. Close the window.” They make no attempt to close it or to get someone else to do it.
The speaker is simply using echolalic speech to communicate their observation. Therefore, the speech shouldn’t be interpreted literally.
Recap of Echolalia
Echolalia is a normal part of speech development in toddlers. However, autistic individuals often continue to use echolalic speech through childhood and, at times, adulthood.
In the past, echolalia has been labeled as “meaningless speech” with no function or communicative intent. We now understand that there are many possible functions of echolalia, as described with the examples in this article.
Echolalia should not be discouraged. Generally, as communication skills improve, the occurrences of echolalic speech diminish.