Why Your Child with Autism Echoes Words and Sounds

By sandra.caplesc…, 14 October, 2022
Child smiling while listening to music.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects 1 in 59 children, changing the child's ability to view and experience the world. They develop differently from other children and experience autism symptoms uniquely.

That's why many children on the spectrum use echolalia, especially when they first learn how to speak. Speech is often delayed and does not develop as normally as typically functioning children. As opposed to trying out new phrases or words, autistic kids copy what they hear without understanding their meaning.

Echolalia is a part of a child's development because the little tyke learns to speak and communicate their ideas and needs. This type of echolalia, developmental echolalia, ends around three years of age—when your child learns to string words together to communicate.

However, if your child keeps using repeating phrases and words after their toddler years, then there might be a reason why your child is using echolalia. It will aid you in identifying the proper treatment method.

So, what is echolalia, and how does it affect children with autism? Find out the answer—and more—in this article.

What Is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the precise repetition—or echoing out loud—of words and sounds they hear from familiar people or even their favorite video. For example, if you ask your child if they want a cookie, they will repeat “cookie” rather than saying “yes.”

While echolalia can be a symptom of other serious diseases, it's primarily associated with autism spectrum disorder. The term comes from the Greek words "echo" and "lalia," which translates to "repeat speech."

When children repeat words right after they hear them, it's called immediate echolalia. When a child repeats words at a later time, it's known as delayed echolalia. Delayed echolalia often seems unusual because it is used out of context. For example, a child might repeat words and phrases from a movie, even if that movie is not currently playing.

Echolalia in Normal Development

Toddlers use echolalia to speak by imitating words and sounds they hear. Over time, the child will learn the language and use it to communicate their ideas and needs—and connect words.

By the time they reach three years of age, most kids communicate with peers by selecting words or crafting phrases. They use their own unique voice and intonation. By the time they are four or five years old, the child can answer questions and carry on conversations.

Types of Echolalia

There are different types of echolalia, aside from delayed and immediate echolalia. These include:

  • Mitigated echolalia, which means that the child repeats words but with slight changes;
  • Functional or interactive echolalia, which is often directed towards communication with others;
  • Immediate or delayed echolalia, which describes the time of using repetitive speech;
  • Non-interactive echolalia, which occurs for reasons other than communication.

Why Do Children with Autism Use Echolalia?

Children learn language by understanding and using single words, then gradually piecing them together to create sentences. Autistic children learn language differently: they use phrases and sentences they cannot break down into smaller chunks. As a result, they might not understand individual words.

There are many reasons why autistic children use echolalia:

  • Self-stimulation: Many children with autism deal with sensory issues, which makes them overwhelmed when in a particular environment or situation they find difficult to cope with. This leads to "stimming," a calming mechanism for overwhelming sensory issues.
  • Communicate stress: Sometimes, it’s too hard or stressful to communicate ideas, so the child can’t express their distress through original speech.
  • Self-talk: Memorized words can help a child to talk themselves through a stressful scenario. It might be words heard from TV, teachers, and parents.
  • Interaction with peers: Echolalia might be your child's way of communicating ideas with you.
  • Ask for things: Since speech delays are normal for autistic children, they might use similar language to ask for something.

Echolalia changes. Repetitive speech patterns can be used for different reasons—and they might even change over time. In addition, your child may use echolalia for multiple reasons—at the same time.

Echolalia Treatment

It’s important to remember that echolalia is not a bad thing, despite causing difficulties in daily life. Even if you’d like to limit your kid’s echolalia, it’s just a stepping stone towards learning how to communicate effectively through speech therapy.

Here are some items that can help:

With the help of a speech therapist, the child can build the necessary skills to live a successful life in the future. The earlier you look into treatment, the better. Many studies show how early intervention leads to long-term success.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is one of the most popular treatment options where your child can learn to communicate.

Keep Reading: Tips for Choosing Your ABA Therapist.

Tips for How You Can Help

As we've mentioned, echolalia is not something you need to worry about. Yes, it can be distressing to see your child struggle, but there are multiple exercises you can apply at home to make it better.

Model Language

You can use the following tips:

  • Model long sentences into short phrases. Sometimes, all the child needs are simplicity to connect the meaning of words.
  • Use language that makes sense if echoed, such as “Time for bed,” instead of “Are you ready to go to bed?”
  • Avoid using questions if your kid can’t answer questions yet.
  • Expect comprehension issues—and be patient.
  • Use names instead of pronouns since they are often confusing.
  • A child needs direct instructions on answering or asking questions. However, for now, avoid them to minimize confusion.
  • You can try to comment on things a child does, such as eating, bath time, playing, etc.

Use Visual Supports

Many children with autism learn better visually—some people respond better to visual information. Visual supports can be a picture or any other visual item, such as schedules, to communicate with your autistic child. These visual cues support language development, build vocabulary, and turn pictures into words.

Read: What Are Visual Supports for Autism?

You can also try to communicate visually by asking choice questions. Try to show them their options; this way, your child will take visual cues and make their decision. You can also shake your head "yes" and "no" for easier understanding.

Limit Questions

It’s normal to ask “who,” “what,” “when,” “why,” or “where” questions to interact with your child, but your autistic child might not understand the meaning. Instead of asking generic questions, you can try to give them choices, as explained before.

Once your child is more comfortable with the exercise, you can start asking WH questions. This exercise will help your child answer more of your questions and cut down on the potential repetitive responses.

Follow Through Immediately on Their Answers

Once your child has made a choice, you can complete the dialogue by accommodating the selection. This is a lesson in itself and helps children identify objects by name. Repeat the name of the object as often as possible. In addition, use special intonations to let your child know which items are good or bad.

Use Relevant Terms

You can help your child improve communication and understanding of specific terms by using key phrases. Removing questions from the dialogue and focusing on the keyword is essential.

Furthermore, practice these techniques for about 10 - 15 minutes per day—or how frequently your speech therapist recommends. It's essential to stay patient and understand that this process takes time. Don't get discouraged, and persevere!