The Function of Echolalia

Echolalia is the repetition or “echoing” of sounds, spoken words, phrases, or sentences. Echolalia is a typical function of early language development seen in young children as they begin to learn spoken language. Echolalia can also be a symptom of various disorders including aphasia, dementia, traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia, or Tourette’s Syndrome; however, it is most often associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It may be difficult to discern typical versus atypical echolalia and whether or not it is a functional part of your child’s language skills, but there are specific qualities to look out for in order to differentiate the underlying causes.

Types of echolalia:

There are two types of echolalia: immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia is when a child repeats what they just heard. For example, if a parent asks a question, “Do you want a cookie?” and the child responds with, “You want a cookie?” rather than responding to the question. Delayed echolalia is when a child repeats something they heard hours, days, months, or even years prior. For example, the child may repeat a line from a video they saw earlier that day or a phrase heard at the park the week before.

Functional versus non-functional echolalia:

For some children, echolalia is just a meaningless imitation of sounds or words strung together. These children may imitate things they’ve heard recently or in the past with no communicative intent. For other children, echolalia serves a purpose to express wants and needs when they are unable to produce novel statements of their own.  When a child “scripts” (i.e. recites exact lines) from shows or movies, it may appear that they are producing long, meaningful utterances, when in fact they have no comprehension of what they are actually saying. In these instances, they may be using the familiar and memorized words and cadence as a calming strategy, but not to convey a specific message. Functional echolalia, however, is the use of learned words or phrases to make requests and otherwise express wants and needs. Some children will use exact words and intonation in order to get their needs met in a functional way even though they may not yet be able to produce their own novel word combinations. For example, they may say “Are you hungry?” to request food, as opposed to simply stating they are hungry or requesting specific food items. It is significant to note, the child who is “scripting” lines from a movie, may also be using those words as a way to request that movie at that time.

When is echolalia considered typical?

Echolalia is seen in typically developing children during early language development between one and two years of age. While we will continue to see some repetition of overheard language between two and three years of age, we also expect to see a consistent increase in novel words and phrases as well. By three years of age, echolalia should be observed minimally in a child’s spontaneous language, and by four and five, a child is expected to engage in conversations using completely novel language. Children with a language delay or autism spectrum disorder may demonstrate these echolalic characteristics beyond three years of age depending on the severity of the delay or disorder.

While first instinct may be to try to stop the echolalia altogether, it is important to recognize it as either a functional communication tool your child has developed, or as a stepping stone into functional expressive communication skills that can be further developed with the help of a speech therapist. If your child’s echolalia has continued past an age considered part of typical language development or appears “non-functional,” it may be helpful to consult a speech and language pathologist. They can help identify the underlying causes and use these emerging verbal skills to target and build functional communication.

Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s echolalic language, please contact us at info@playworkschicago.com or 773-332-9439.

Therese Brown, MS, CCC-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist
Photo Credit: Echolalia Autism (repetitive speech)-Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment via hearingsol.com

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