Echolalia refers to the repetition of spoken words or phrases, and for many autistic people, it’s often a means of communicating. It’s important to note that even neurotypicals engage in echolalic speech from time to time, but the ways in which it’s used and the frequency of use differs from that of autistic people.
Echolalia can generally be divided into two types: immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia. Immediate echolalia is the repeating of words recently spoken by someone. This could be the whole phrase or just a word or two.
If just a word or two are repeated, it’s often the last word or two in the sentence. This can lead to a lot of misunderstanding if the sentence is a question. This is because someone might repeat back the end of the sentence and that might get interpreted as the thing they want, when in reality, it isn’t what they want at all. For example, if someone asked, “do you want spaghetti or tacos?” and the person repeated back, “tacos”, the person might be upset if they hate tacos and what they really wanted was spaghetti.
Delayed echolalia is the repetition of speech after a period of time. This form of echolalia might be derived from words spoken by those close to a person, or they may be quotes from books, lines from video games, TV shows, or movies, or words from signs or products.
Autistic people often keep these phrases in a mental bank of sorts. While not always, these phrases tend to hold certain meanings for the one using them, even if they might seem odd or misplaced to someone else. These phrases might be heavily intertwined with very specific memories or feelings and someone might repeat a certain phrase as a means of trying to express a certain feeling.
Echolalia might also be used as a form of imitating someone’s accent, tone, pitch, inflection, volume, spoken rhythm, etc. This can be a point of embarrassment for many autistic people if we find ourselves speaking like someone else, and it can be especially embarrassing if we begin speaking like someone we’ve just encountered. It can seem like we’re mocking them, when it’s likely because we find the way they’re speaking to be interesting enough that we want to hear it again.
While echolalia is often a means of communication, it can serve other purposes as well. Echolalia can be thought of as being a more interactive part of conversation or as a way of making a request, such as repeating “go to the store” as a way of requesting to buy a favorite snack.
Echolalia can also be a way to process and organize thoughts in conversation, as it can often help to repeat a question aloud while trying to form a response. It can also let the other person know you have acknowledged their question and are planning to respond.
When echolalia is not as interactive, it can take the form of scripting, self-regulating, rehearsal for a conversation, or as a way of staying on track when completing tasks.
Echolalia is often used as a way of stimming, whereby autistic people will repeat certain words or sounds, simply because we like the way they sound or feel when spoken. We might keep the words as is, we might alter the ways in which they’re said, or we might even sing them. This can prove to be really calming and centering.
For many autistic people, the use of echolalia increases when dealing with stressful situations. It can often help to repeat phrases like “it’s okay” or “I’m okay” or other calming phrases when dealing with stress or upset. I especially tend to find myself doing this when I’m having a panic attack or I’m on the verge of having one. Echolalia can help to break up my negative string of thoughts.
Echolalia can also be an excellent tool when preparing for conversations. Many people might think of this use as being more in line with scripting, but I’m mentioning it here, because I’ve often used conversational scripts derived from others. Also, echolalial scripting is a type of scripting in and of itself. Many times throughout my life, I’ve gone to those closest to me and asked them what I should say in a conversation, and then I’ve rehearsed their exact words for the anticipated conversation.
Many autistic people use echolalia as a means of staying on track. It can be really helpful, and in my case often necessary, to repeat the steps for completing a task until the task is completed. This can help to mitigate certain issues with working memory or distractions.
The ways in which echolalia is used varies, but it often serves as a valuable tool for self regulating, socializing, and the overall communication of wants and needs. Plus, it can honestly be a lot of fun to engage in!