Echolalia

What is echolalia?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

Echolalia includes the word echo. Someone who uses echolalia repeats words or phrases heard somewhere, without necessarily understanding their meaning, a bit like a parrot might do. Sometimes, this way of communicating allows someone to express their needs. For example, if a person regularly hears "it's ready" at mealtime, he or she might choose this formula to express hunger. They would then say “it's ready” even if the meal isn't.

What is echolalia?

Echolalia is the repetition of words or phrases heard from someone else or on the radio, in a cartoon, etc. The meaning of the words or phrases is not necessarily understood by the person using echolalia. Many autistic people use echolalia in a variety of ways.

Autistic people who use functional verbal language may also exhibit echolalia, but it is not present in the entire autistic population. Its intensity and frequency can vary considerably from one person to another.

Immediate echolalia

The person immediately repeats sounds upon hearing them. They don’t necessarily understand the meaning, rather like a parrot. Sounds are perceived and immediately pronounced. Some people who cannot communicate effectively through speech are still able to imitate a series of sounds, accents and even complex content.

Immediate echolalia can also be used voluntarily or involuntarily, by people with a good command of oral communication, for example, in times of stress, discomfort or misunderstanding.

For greater precision, echolalia is defined as immediate when it occurs within two speech turns[1] .

[1] Fay, 1967, Prizant & Duchan, 1981, in Stiegler, 2015

Scenario

During a tense discussion, Donovan's teacher ends up asking him if he takes him for an imbecile. Under the influence of stress, Donovan immediately repeats the sentence he heard. The professor might mistakenly believe that Donovan repeated the phrase in order to mock or provoke him.

I'm very sensitive to sounds, negatively to intrusive sounds, positively to music, but also to the phonetics of words. That's why, if a word gives me a particular sensation, I tend to repeat it, as if I wanted to taste it, to make it my own, to explore it! When I do this in front of someone who doesn't know that I tend to echolalia, it can create uncomfortable situations.

Delayed echolalia

Delayed echolalia causes the person to repeat words or phrases, but later, outside the initial context. It can occur shortly after a topic of conversation has finished, but it can also occur years later, or be used over the very long term.

For example, during a significant event, the person may have heard a phrase that they will then repeat every time they feel an emotion similar to that experienced during the event.

For greater precision, echolalia is defined as deferred when it occurs outside two speech turns[1] .

The benefits of echolalia

Young non-autistic children can also repeat words or phrases they heard when they were learning to speak. It’s the memory that stores the sounds and tests them, even if they don’t necessarily understand the meaning. In many autistic children, this happens later.

Many professionals have observed that in some autistic people, echolalia is a step towards a more functional understanding and use of language, but it does not automatically lead to functional mastery of speech.

[1] Prizant & Rydell, 1984, in Stiegler, 2015

Attention

Although echolalia may not appear to be functional, for many autistic people it's a key method of communication (or their only method). Through echolalia, they can express needs, feelings and more. Taking the time to try and understand the echolalia of the person and adapting to it can reduce their anxiety and considerably reduce their frustration at not being able to convey the information they want.

Further information

Les Éditions Passe-temps – L’écholalie chez les enfants autistes : c’est quoi?!

References
  1. Fay, 1967, Prizant & Duchan, 1981, dans Stiegler, 2015
  2. Prizant & Rydell, 1984, dans Stiegler, 2015e