Echolalia: Imitating And Repeating Words Is Not Always A Red Flag For Autism - Speech Therapy Connect

Echolalia: Imitating and Repeating Words Is Not Always A Red Flag For Autism

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Children often imitate those in their surroundings, especially their family members. However, what if they’re always imitating you or repeating what you say? What if they’re repeating the lines of a favorite movie? What if they never answer the simple questions you ask of them? Is this something you need to be mindful of? Should you be alarmed about their development? Don’t fret so much about this repetitive process called echolalia. Believe it or not, it’s a normal part of childhood development.

What Exactly Is Echolalia?

As noted above, it’s the mere repeating and imitating of words or sentences a child utters in response to a parent or caregiver. While echolalia sounds worrying, it really isn’t a real significant cause for concern. Yes, many autistic children (those who fall on the autism spectrum) use echolalia, but that’s not always the case for all children.

Some children just love to imitate those or what they love, much like many adults quote movies during a conversation.

Now, there are two types of echolalia – immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia. How do you know which one your child has?

  • Immediate Echolalia – This is the immediate repeating of words or phrases your child hears. For instance, you ask your child if they want ice cream, and they repeat cream instead of telling you yes.
  • Delayed Echolalia – The child repeats what he’s heard previously (movie line), even if it’s days or months ago. For example, your child heard the phrase, “Your swim tube is cute,” and will use it to respond to your question of what they would like to do Saturday. It may seem odd, but it may be their way of saying they want to go swimming.

And yes, echolalia is normal for children, as it’s their way to learn to communicate. It usually begins around 18 months old and continues until your child learns how to imitate. By the time your child is age three, they will be able to repeat nearly any word and talk in three-word sentences.  It’s a normal part of childhood development that helps children to communicate with the world around them.

Plus, there are some children who will repeat longer sentences, word for word, meeting both pitch and volume. However, they may not know what it all means.

Non-autistic children tend to start to speak without imitating or repeating after the age of three. They start using words, phrases and sentences on their own. They will ask questions and respond when you ask them a question.

Autistic children who may still use echolalic speech as a way to communicate, as they’re unable to make up sentences for themselves. Autistic children often have problems learning how to use language compared to other children their own age.  This strategy does continue into childhood or sometimes their entire lives, but it is their means of communicating with you. With a little bit of understanding about echolalia, you can quickly determine what your child is trying to tell you.

Is There A Reason For Echolalia?

There is a mistaken impression that echolalia speech is always a bad thing – that a child who has it is unintelligent or distracted. The reality is that echolalia is a stepping stone for children to find their own voice.  All toddlers tend to use echolalia for a couple of reasons:

Fascination

Children are fascinated by the world around them, and this includes words. They may repeat what is said just to hear themselves say out loud.

Self-soothing

When your child is in an environment they’ve never been to before, they may repeat things they’ve heard to calm themselves down. It’s their way to get comfortable in this new place.

Stalling

Children may use echolalia to buy themselves time when you ask them a question. The child heard the question and may repeat it to understand it. Then they may put into words, giving you an answer to how they understood the question.

This is a process adults do without thinking about it, but children have a more challenging time to formulate answers to questions without first repeating it to themselves, even aloud.

Expressing Themselves or Interactions

Another reason toddlers may use echolalia is to express themselves or be interactive. They may repeat what you say as a way to get involved in the conversation. They may even mean what they tell you.  For instance, you spent time with your child at the movies, and you tell them you had a good time with them. Your child may repeat the same thing to you and actually mean what they said.

Autistic children will use echolalia for other reasons besides those mentioned above. They may do it to communicate, socialize and self-regulate. Learn more about how echolalia is useful for Autistic people.

The key is to look at their body language. Your child may try to communicate with you through gestures and actions. For example, if you ask your child if they want to go swimming, they may pull out their swim tube or swim shorts. This is a sign that they’re answering your question.

There may be times that your child repeats most of what you say but finishes it off with something else. For example, you ask your child if they want milk. They repeat the sentence but finish it off with juice. It could be because they’d rather have juice than milk.

Every one of these is a prime example of a functional purpose behind echolalia and not a real cause of alarm.

How You Can Advance Your Child’s Language Beyond Echolalia

Although research has found that echolalia is part of normal childhood development and a big part of learning communication, you still need to understand how your child is trying to talk to you. By doing so, you can focus on ways to help your child expand their communication skills.

Family plays a big role in overcoming echolalia and helping children to talk themselves (without repetition). If you’re concerned about the echolalia, reach out to a speech pathologist to find out how functional the echolalia is. With functional echolalia, you can make changes to how you talk to your child to help them speak and communicate better.

Make sure to use evidence-based methods that are geared to your child’s age to see progress. What can you do? Here are some ideas:

  • Instead of asking questions, make a statement. Don’t ask them if they want to go to the movies; just tell them, “We’re going to the movies.”
  • Teach “I don’t know” to your child, so they know they can use it when they don’t have an answer to a question.  
  • Start a sentence and allow them to finish it. For example, say, “I would like some ____” and allow them to give you the answer of what they’d like.

Every parent worries that there will be something wrong with their child, including autism. However, a child with echolalia does not mean they are autistic. Echolalia is common as children experiment with language and most children advance their speech and get past the echolalic stage, which usually ends around the age of three.

Help for Echolalia

However, if you notice your child is still repeating words, phrases and sentences and doesn’t appear to communicate much beyond that, you should seek out the help of a speech-language pathologist. The SLP will do the following:

  • Conduct an assessment of their speech.
  • Let you know the results of that assessment. Is the echolalia functional?
  • Give you an idea of how you can use it to better understand and communicate with your child.
  • Give you tools on how to get them to communicate with you without prompting.
  • They can also provide you with evidence-based methods to help your child communicate with other people beyond the immediate family.

Don’t worry until there is something to worry about. Every child uses echolalia as a means to explore and communicate with the world. The key is to help them expand their vocabulary – words, phrases and sentences – so communication becomes a two-way street. And, if you are worried, find a reputable speech-language therapist to help you to better understand your child.

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