Fact Sheet - Echolalia

School age boy pointing towards his mouth

Echolalia - extended version

Echolalia is the repetition of the speech of others. It is a feature of autism spectrum disorder for many children. It is now recognised as a diagnostic feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5th edition (known as DSM-5).

Repeating what other people say is a language development stage for all young children. It is generally called imitation. If this imitation happens often and is still happening after the age of 3 years, it is likely to be echolalia. Echolalia in autism tends to be used for longer into a child’s development than normal imitation and makes up a larger percentage of utterances in children on the autism spectrum than in typically developing children.

The reason that children on the spectrum use echolalia has been talked about for several decades. In the 1970s, researchers thought that echolalia had no function and children should be stopped from using echolalia. Since the 1980s, research has mostly looked at the functions of echolalia across the three different forms of echolalia, as discussed below.

Immediate echolalia

Immediate echolalia is exact repetition that immediately follows a person’s speech. Researchers think that this type of echolalia might give a child on the spectrum a way to maintain a social interaction. These interactions might include turn taking, answering questions and requesting. Sometimes, immediate echolalia might not be about communication – sometimes it can be a way for a child to practice new words or might indicate that the child doesn’t understand what is said.

Delayed echolalia

Delayed echolalia is repetition of speech that occurs at a later time. Sometimes delayed echolalia may be a way of communicating with other people to take turns, get attention, agree or protest. Delayed echolalia can also be used as rehearsal, giving instructions to themselves and to help cope with emotions (e.g. reciting a TV show when stressed). It is also thought that echolalia can be used with or without the student understanding what they are saying (comprehension). This point is important to remember at home and particularly at school. The language used by a child using delayed echolalia can be much more complex than their other language. This can make people think that a child has much better language skills than they really do. Some children will not understand what they are saying.

Mitigated echolalia

Mitigated echolalia is also echoed speech but the child changes the words a little bit. Research has found that the better a child can understand language, the more mitigated echolalia they use. This might mean that it is a sign of developing language skills. It is likely to be an indicator of better language outcomes.

In summary

Echolalia in children on the spectrum appears to serve many functions. It is important to recognise that echolalia may mask a child’s true language skills (because they can often say things they don’t understand). Echolalia is often a positive step towards more spontaneous language development. 

(Reviewed November 2016)