You might have read something about echolalia in passing somewhere online, or maybe a professional told you that your child does it. Maybe you’ve heard echolalia is more common in autistic people and other people with developmental differences. I can tell you that I, myself, use echolalia!

But what exactly is it?

What is echolalia?

Echolalia comes from Ancient Greek, meaning “echo speech”. This is the official name for when someone echoes or repeats something they’ve heard. If they echo right after hearing something, we call it immediate echolalia. If they echo something later, we call it delayed echolalia.

Why do people use immediate echolalia?

There are multiple reasons why someone might use immediate echolalia.

Social connection: Repeating what someone says affirms that you are listening to them and connecting to what they are saying.

Processing time: Echoing what someone says can help someone process what is being said to them and allows processing time
For example, I ask Alex, “Where did you put the bread?”. “Where did you put the bread?” he replies. I know he isn’t really asking. I wait patiently until he can use his AAC to tell me it’s in the fridge.

Impulse: Some people might have a compulsion to repeat things they’ve heard, or they may not be able to filter what they’re thinking from coming out of their mouths.

Why do people use delayed echolalia?

Like immediate echolalia, there are also various reasons for using delayed echolalia.

Communicating a word or phrase: I might be thinking of a word or phrase I want to speak, and I communicate it via an echo. Personally, I will say “let’s go” within the phrase “we see the undertow, and we say ‘let’s go!’” from the movie Finding Dory.

Communicating an idea: A very similar way to communicate is using an echo to communicate something that’s not part of the words you’re echoing. Someone might say, “Are you hurt?” because it’s an echo they picked up from a time they fell down and skinned a knee. They are actually communicating the idea “I fell down!”, by using the words they heard the last time it happened.

Self-regulation: Speaking to yourself can drown out other sounds and provide proprioceptive input from the vibration. If I’m feeling dysregulated, using phrases from a treasured interest may also help me calm down. Some words and phrases are a sensory delight to say!

Social connection: Someone may want to connect with another person but not know what to say. Someone might also want to connect and know what they’d like to say but not be able to get anything out other than an echo.

Impulse: Like with immediate echolalia, someone may have difficulty stopping what’s in their brain from reaching their mouth (or fingers). Many autistic people experience getting words and phrases ‘stuck in their head’ in the same way non-autistic people get songs ‘stuck in their heads.’

For example, all morning I’ve heard “there’s no place like home” repeating in my head incessantly, with the bright colors and soundtrack to match. I try to ask my spouse a question about lunch, but “there’s no place like home” pushes forward and spills out of my mouth instead. I roll my eyes, sign to my spouse that I need my iPad to say what I mean, and run to go get it off the charger.

Can an AAC user do echolalia?

Many people use AAC because they don’t speak, have speech that is hard to understand, or speak in a limited manner. That doesn’t mean they don’t use echolalia!

Someone who doesn’t speak may hum or make noises that follow the rhythm of something they’ve heard. They may copy body movements they’ve seen, which is called echopraxia.

Someone whose speech is hard to understand may say things that seem like speech, but you can’t quite make them out. If you follow their rhythm and pitch, some of those things might be echolalia.

Many autistic people whose speech is limited will speak primarily or only in delayed echolalia! Personally, I can speak typically most of the time, but experience times when I can only speak via echolalia, and need my AAC for other communication.

And, of course, any AAC user might echo what is said to them by using their device. Echoing with AAC is just as much echolalia as echoing with speech.

What do I do about echolalia?

I use echolalia all the time, and it feels so many different ways. When all I can get out is the phrase stuck in my head, but I can’t explain why, it’s frustrating. When I’m telling you what I mean by echoing my favorite television shows, it’s joyful. When it’s tumbling out of my mouth just because it feels nice to say, it’s cozy. The only time it feels deeply negative, however, is when someone disconnects from me because of it.

Listen to me. Affirm that I’ve said something, even if you don’t understand it. Repeat it back to me. Nod. Tell me that you’re trying to understand. Help me regulate. Find joy in my echos!

And, of course, please get me access to AAC. I have a lot to say! I deserve the tools to say it.