Why Children with Autism Use Echolalia

Why Children with Autism Use Echolalia
"Echolalia is the act of repeating or echoing words or sentences that others have said. These ‘borrowed’ words are generally well articulated and repeated with the same emphasis and vocal quality used by the original speaker. This ability to echo so precisely is confusing because it makes the individual sound so capable and knowledgeable. However, these words and phrases were recorded and stored ‘in chunks’ without analysis for meaning." (Janzen, 1996 cited from Prizant 1983).

There are two types of echolalia, immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia is words or sentences repeated immediately after they are heard (e.g., teacher says, "Good morning Alex!" Alex replies, "Good morning Alex!").

Delayed echolalia may occur hours, days, weeks or months after it is heard.

Parents may become deeply concerned when their child with autism begins to use echolalia or notice an increase in echolalia. Echolalia can be annoying and at some point we do want to decrease echolalia; however, echolalia is a strong prognostic indicator that a child is stimulable for developing functional speech because he is already imitating speech. In other words, we can feel confident that motor speech disorders, such as apraxia, are not severely impacting the child’s expressive language disorder.

Interestingly, Neuro-typically developing children use echolalia too. Typical children go through a period of language development called the echolalic stage (around age 8-12 months). Echolalia is a way of practicing or rehearsing using language.

When a child with autism is first learning to communicate I do not discourage the use of echolalia, rather I try to shape the echolalia to make speech more functional, appropriate and improve communication skills. This is often achieved by asking the child questions that he knows the answer to and I will help to "shape" his response to be more appropriate.

An echolalic child will initially answer a question by repeating the question and may or may not give an answer. Try presenting a simple question and before the child can answer you, say the answer to the question.

For example, say, "What is your name? Alex." Say the answer louder than the question and point to the child as you say, "Alex," to indicate it is his turn to speak. Present the question and answer in this manner three times until the child only responds with the answer. Then immediately praise him for the correct response and/or reinforce his response with a tangible reinforcer.


Janzen, J. (1996). Understanding the Nature of Autism. San Antonio, TX: Therapy Skill Builders.

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