A relatively common speech issue that can be difficult for parents to understand is Echolalia. Echolalia means that your child is repeating what they hear in an automatic way. It is a behavior of children who are presenting as being on the autism spectrum, but it doesn’t always mean that your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder.
As speech therapists for children, we see echolalia in toddlers learning to speak and learning language. But it can be a natural part of your toddler learning to speak, or might be part of autism spectrum disorder.
What is echolalia and what does it mean?
Echolalia is the act of repeating or echoing phrases or words that you have just heard. This is sometimes referred to as an apparent “automatic” or “robotic” repetition. In speech therapy with kids, we see this in children who are learning language and learning to speak.
For example, a parent or a guardian offering something to a little one:
Parent: “Do you want milk or juice?
Child: “Do you want milk or juice, milk, or juice, milk or juice…”
They’re repeating what they just heard. They’re repeating that phrase. They’re repeating those options, “milk or juice.” That is an example of echolalic behavior.
Repetition for learning vs echolalic behavior.
Repeating or imitating is actually a good skill. What we do when we’re first starting to learn a language is to repeat the word.
For example, if you show your child a ball:
Parent: “Ball. This is a ball. A ball bounces. Bounce ball, bounce.”
Child, often with you: “Ball. Ball bounce, etc”
You’re telling them about the toy, what it does, describing the color, feel, the smell, etc. Then you’ll be asking them to repeat after you. In this case, this is imitation, repeating the language. And that is a good thing.
With echolalia, you may hear a difference in how your child is repeating, what they’re imitating, and how they are responding. What they’re copying is the phrase or the options that you have just given them that you’re communicating to them, without apparent understanding.
“Do you want to go outside?”
“Do you want to go outside? Do you want to go outside? Do you want to go outside?”
They may be repeating the question with that automatic repetition.
Echolalia is a characteristic of children on the autism spectrum.
We sometimes see this behavior in little ones that are presenting on the autism spectrum. However, not every child that presents with echolalic behavior is somewhere on the spectrum. What it does mean is that this is simply a characteristic.
Since echolalic repetition is a characteristic, if you have suspicions that your child might be exhibiting other behavior that is also seen in children on the spectrum disorder, it is important that you have an evaluation done with your medical professional.
When is echolalia not an indicator of autism?
When you’re seeing your little one repeat those phrases, what they might also be doing is literally processing the information.
- They may be thinking about the phrase.
- They may be running it through their mind and figuring out the question that you had just asked them.
- They may be thinking about the options that you have offered them.
- They may be formulating their answer and this repetition is a way to give them time to think about how to answer.
- Or, this could be an indication of other language problems or learning.
This repetition is them trying to understand the information that you have just asked them. Or, this could be an indication that they are having difficulty understanding language.
When to get help from a speech therapist.
As we’ve pointed out there are many reasons why your child might be exhibiting echolalic behavior. If you are seeing this behavior and have a concern, contacting a speech therapist for an evaluation can give you additional information to help you decide a next step. Often, this is something that a speech therapist can help with, and can also help you if they see other indicators that you might want to check with your medical professional.
Better Speech offers an evaluation, or a complete speech therapy program.
If you have any questions about echolalic behavior, or about your child’s language in general, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for:
We can help better guide you and answer your questions that you may have in relation to any part of speech and language. Whether it be for a little one, or whether it be for an adult, either way, we are here to help you.