What Is Echolalia, and How Can You Help Your Child?
Children who are learning to talk often begin with babbling, then understanding and using one word at a time. Over time, they start to use longer phrases and sentences.
As they’re learning to talk, it’s common for children to repeat words and imitate you. For example, some children may repeat the last word of a question before they learn how to say “yes.” If you say, “Do you want to play with the ball?,” your child may say, “baa.”
Repeating words is normal, especially around ages 1 to 2 years old. As their communication skills improve, most children will begin to form their own phrases. By about age 3, children should be making up their own simple sentences, and you shouldn’t hear much repeating.
What if your older child is still repeating words?
However, some children who are age 3 and older may continue to only repeat phrases others have said, without using their own new sentences. These children are likely gestalt language processors. This means their language development looks a little different. Instead of starting with single words, they begin speaking in multi-word “chunks,” or phrases, called gestalts. Often these gestalts are echolalia, meaning the phrases are repeated from a TV show, video, or a familiar adult.
Many autistic children are gestalt language processors. It’s common for autistic children to use echolalia. But not all children who use echolalia are autistic. Some children may have a language delay and develop speech and language differently, and in a different order, than we’re expecting.
It’s common for autistic children to use echolalia. But not all children who use echolalia are autistic.
A speech therapist can help you learn how to best support your child’s language development if they’re a gestalt language processor. The goal is for your child to be able to communicate their wants, needs, and thoughts, while learning to use language more flexibly and clearly.
If a child is using echolalia, they may repeat what you say right after you say it. This is called immediate echolalia. For example, if you ask them, “Do you want some juice?,” they may repeat, “Do you want some juice?” In echoing your words, they may be trying to communicate that they do, in fact, want juice.
Gestalt processors may also repeat phrases they’ve heard, such as from their favorite TV show or song, much later after hearing them. This is called delayed echolalia. They’re using these phrases in a meaningful way, even if at first it doesn’t make sense to us!
Here’s an example of delayed echolalia. A child may skin their knee and say, “I have a diagnosis!” This comes from the TV show Doc McStuffins, where the character says this phrase when an animal is hurt and needs care. So your child is correctly associating that phrase with being hurt and needing help, even if the exact words may not make sense in the specific situation.
Why do children use echolalia?
Echolalia gives children a way to interact with others. It’s a step on the way to using more flexible language. Using gestalts and echolalia can be meaningful, even if we don’t fully understand what the child is trying to communicate.
When children use echolalia, they often don’t understand the meaning of each word individually. They associate a meaning with the phrase as a whole. Your child may use echolalia to:
Ask for things
Start an interaction
Say yes or no
For example, a gestalt language processor might say, “Which story do you want to read?” when he realizes it’s time for bed. He knows this phrase is related to bedtime, but he doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of each individual word.
Using gestalts and echolalia can be meaningful, even if we don’t fully understand what the child is trying to communicate.
Children can also use gestalts and echolalia to express an emotion, or to regulate or soothe themselves if they’re upset or overwhelmed.
A speech therapist can help your child learn to break down these phrases into smaller parts. Then, they can use the words one at a time to come up with their own new phrases!
Tips for communicating with children who use echolalia
Your speech therapist can teach you techniques for better communication with your child. For example, they may suggest modeling phrases from your child’s point of view, as they would say it. So you might say “I found my race car!” instead of saying “Do you see the race car?” or “You found your race car.” That way, your child can learn how to say it from their own perspective.
Another important part of communicating with children who use echolalia is to focus on the meaning behind what they’re saying, rather than the specific words they’re using. Try noticing what your child is doing, how they’re feeling, and what they’re paying attention to when they use certain phrases. This can give you clues about what they mean, even if it's a little different from the actual words they’re using.
An important part of communicating with children who use echolalia is to focus on the meaning behind what they’re saying, rather than the words they’re using.
The most important thing is to follow your child’s lead. This can be hard! But it’s better to let your child lead rather than asking too many questions or giving them too many commands. Following their lead can help you better understand each other and support relationship-building and communication.
What if you don’t understand what your child is trying to say?
It might be hard to understand what your child means when they use echolalia. As mentioned above, it can help to think about the context in which they first heard the phrase. You may know where the gestalt, or “chunk,” of words came from originally. Or you may notice that they use a certain gestalt to express a certain emotion. This is all good information to share with their speech therapist.
Remember that using echolalia helps a child build relationships.
But sometimes you simply may not know the meaning of your child’s gestalt, and that’s OK. Even if it’s not clear what they mean, you can still listen, respond, and provide encouragement. Remember that using echolalia helps a child build relationships. Repeating phrases can be meaningful, even if we don’t fully understand the exact meaning of the phrases.
Echolalia and autism
Autism is a complex condition that affects every child differently. However, some signs of autism may include the following:
Slow to respond to their name or other attempts to gain their attention
Using behaviors like temper tantrums to communicate
Using a monotone speaking voice that lacks inflection or intonation
Appearing to be in their own world and lacking eye contact
Strong reactions to sensory stimuli, such as being sensitive to loud noises or refusing to eat food with certain textures
It’s important to remember that we all communicate differently. Using echolalia can be a meaningful step in communication development. A speech therapist can help support you and your child as they learn to shape echolalia into more flexible language.