Many children repeat the words and sentences of others when they are learning language skills. This is part of typical child development. However some children, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), may repeat what they have heard beyond the early language development period. This might be things they have heard their parents or teacher say, or something they heard on a TV show. This is known as echolalia.
Echolalia may be immediate, where children repeat words right after they hear them. For example, “It’s a sunny day” “sunny day”. Or, echolalia can be delayed, where children repeat the words later on. For example, saying “you can do it” while performing a tricky task.
There are a few reasons why children may use echolalia.
- Difficulties with language:
- They might not know how to say what they mean (eg. the vocabulary or sentence structure)
- They might not understand what you have said or how to respond
- It might be part of the way they are learning language. Children with ASD tend to learn language in ‘chunks’ (such a whole sentence) without understanding what the individual words or parts mean. For example they might learn the phrase “It’s time for dinner” means it’s time to eat, but not understand what “time” and “for” mean individually and be able to use them in other sentences.
- Self-stimulating strategy:
- Repeating familiar words or phrases can be comforting in stressful or unfamiliar situations
- For entertainment – repeating your favourite character’s lines can be fun
- To tune out the world around them
It is important to remember that many children use echolalia for a communicative purpose, such as:
- To make requests
- To start an interaction or to keep one going
- To respond to questions or interaction attempts
- To make protests
- To gain attention