Does your child repeat words and phrases instead of forming words on their own? This habit could signify echolalia, which points to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in older kids and adults.

This guide thoroughly explains echolalia and its role in child development, along with a few potential echolalia treatments.


What is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the use of repetitive words and phrases in communication. It is a natural phase of language development in toddlers. But kids often outgrow it when they reach their third birthday.

However, children with autism often fail to outgrow this condition. Children with autism often continue to mimic the words or sounds in the same order or tone as they’ve heard them from different sources.

There are different forms of echolalia patterns in children with autism.


Types of Echolalia

Immediate Echolalia

This occurs when the child echoes the exact utterances right after hearing them. For example, a teacher asks the child, “Have you finished your assignment?” The child rejoins with, “You finished your assignment.”

Delayed Echolalia

In this case, the child takes time before uttering the words or phrases they hear. For example, they may watch an episode of Paw Patrol on TV during the day. Later in the evening, the child may recite a phrase spoken on the episode.

Interactive Echolalia

The child uses memorized sounds or phrases in a verbal exchange with another person. For example, a parent may ask their child what they want for lunch. The child responds by singing a song from a pizza advert to communicate he wants pizza for lunch.

Non-interactive Echolalia

Here, the speaker repeats the words and sounds for their own purposes. For example, a child may play with their favorite toys while singing a song from a popular TV show. He may sing, “And the loud train raced through the dark tunnel,” while he’s rotating the wheels of his toy train.

People with echolalia may also use these memorized phrases to go through a process. If they’re about to cross a road, for example, they might tell themselves to “Look right. Look left. Look right again,” before they finally cross the road.


Mitigated Echolalia

A child with mitigated echolalia changes the original words or phrases. For example, you ask a child what their favorite toy is, and they reply using the phrase “Aah, aah, racing car,” which they picked up from a TV program.

Over time, they may abandon the “aah, aah” and respond only with the words “racing car” to communicate their toy preference.


Why Do Autistic Children Use Echolalia?

At first, a toddler learns and uses single words like “go,” “mom,” or “dad.” By the time they reach three years, they can combine single words to form phrases and sentences.

But that’s not the case for children or adults with autism, who continue to repeat words and phrases past their early childhood. Typically, they use complete sections like phrases and sentences to communicate with others.

Children with autism disorder cannot break down long phrases and sentences into single words and later recombine them to make meaningful conversations.

Here are some reasons why children with autism use repetitive speech patterns:

  1.     Self-stimulation

Your child may experience sensory overload due to many reasons. Kids with autism may develop self-stimulation as a coping or calming mechanism against sensory overload. Echolalia is one of the common self-stimulating behaviors.

  1.     Prefabrication

Your child may use repeated phrases and sentences to express irritation and anxiety during stressful moments.

  1.     Self-talk

Repetitive speech may come in handy to help your child navigate a difficult process like a school exam.

Echolalia can serve various roles in communication as well.


Echolalia is a Way to Communicate

  • Asking for Things

A child may say, “Do you want some chicken wings?” to ask for chicken, as they’ve heard the phrase from you before.

  • Interactions

Your child may use repetitive speech to initiate interactions with you. For example, they may use the phrase “on your mark, get set, go,” when they want to play running games with you.

  • Draw Attention

The child may bring your attention to something by using a phrase they’ve heard before, like, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!”

  • To Protest

The child may use the phrase, “You don’t want to put on those shoes?” as they’ve heard their parents ask them the same question. This means the child doesn’t want to wear those particular shoes.

  • Answer Yes

Your child may echo a question you pose to them as a way of answering in the affirmative. When you ask them, “Do you want to take a nap?” they may indicate that they do by repeating the question back at you.


How to Model Language for a Child Who is Echolalic

  • Use phrases that will be less confusing when repeated by your child. For example, “Time for a nap” is more meaningful than “Do you need to nap?”
  • Start with short sentences. The idea is to make it simple for your child to match the words and their meanings.
  • Avoid posing questions if your child can’t respond to questions. Otherwise, everything they echo will come out as a question.
  • Children with autism have difficulty understanding the “I-you” pronoun usage. For clarity, use names.
  • Remember that your child may face comprehension challenges despite their ability to follow directions.
  • Later, you will need to teach the child how to use pronouns and how to ask or respond to questions. In the meantime, avoid them to reduce pronoun use confusion.
  • Speak about the things the child is doing while playing, eating, or having bath time. For example, when eating, make comments such as “hold the spoon,” “eat quickly,” or “food is tasty.”


Improving Communication

It may be difficult to have a conversation with a child who shows signs of echolalia. But the good news is there are several techniques you can use to improve verbal exchanges with them.

Limiting the “WH” Questions

WH questions are those that start with “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” and “Why.”

Avoid using open “WH” questions like: “What are you doing?” or “How is your leg?” Children with autism may still understand these questions and will often echo these.

Instead, give them choice questions. For example, “Do you want milk or juice?”

Communicate Visually

When you give the child a choice question, remember to present the options visually. This will give them visual cues for comprehension and decision-making as they build their communication skills.

Follow Through Immediately on Their Answers

After the child makes their choice, comment on their selection. Echo the name of the object several times so they can understand and learn to name the objects.

You can also use tonal variation to help them identify good options like pets, toys, books, and foods. Or dangerous options like fire, medications, needles, and knives.

Conversational Modeling with Relevant Terms

Focus on using keywords to describe specific items or situations. For example, use the keywords “hungry” or “tired” instead of asking, “Are you tired?” The keywords cut the repetition of questions even as the child learns more new words.


Echolalia Treatment

Some of the go-to treatments for autism-related echolalia include the following:

Speech Therapy

The speech therapist works out the best way to improve how the echolalic child communicates. They may use creative tools like picture boards, games, or even songs to improve communication skills.

The specific objectives of speech therapy include the following:

  • Mastering verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Articulate words well
  • Understanding verbal and non-verbal cues, including tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
  • Improve conversation skills, gestures, and eye contact
  • Starting communication.

ABA Therapy

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy centered on the science of learning and behavior. With echolalia, the treatment goal would be communication and language development.

Positive reinforcement is a common technique employed in ABA therapy. It involves the use of positive rewards to foster positive behavior.

Every time a child communicates well, they get a meaningful reward. Examples of positive rewards include a compliment, a toy, or an activity like going to the playground.

The Bottom Line

While echolalia may seem alarming for many parents, you don’t need to worry too much. The repetitive phrases are an attempt by toddlers to learn the language and how to communicate.

But your child may continue to echo memorized phrases past early childhood, and this is often related to autism spectrum disorder.

The best way to help an echolalic child is to contact a speech-language therapist. The therapist can help your child drop the repetitive speech patterns and communicate spontaneously.



If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.




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