Echolalia is the immediate or delayed echoing or repetition of whole, unanalyzed expressions or reciprocation. It depends on
the ability to remember streams of auditory signals and to reproduce them, processes that are related to verbal short-term
memory, the purpose of echolalia is unclear, but it has been believed to serve a number of functions, including conversation
maintenance, communication, self-soothing and verbal rehearsal. This tendency to repeat phrases as unanalyzed wholes may
persist into adulthood, even when language learning is presumably finish.
Many individuals with autism do develop speech. Unfortunately, not all children with autism develop functional speech.
Common speech abnormalities include echolalia (immediate or delayed repeating of information), unconventional word use,
and unusual tone, pitch, and articulation. Echolalia occurs in approximately 85% of children with autism who eventually
develop speech. Even when more complex speech is acquired, individuals with autism typically have poor conversational
skills. They may also have difficulty understanding common, nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and
eye contact. However, many of these individuals with autism do learn to communicate through picture boards, computers,
sign language, and other enhancements. Although communicative deficits can range from mute to adequate speech with poor
conversational skills, as many has 50% of individuals with autism fail to develop functional spoken language abilities.
One of the traits in autism is a delay in or a lack of development of spoken language. Many children with autism are initially
referred for evaluation because of parents’ concerns about delayed language milestones, and the achievement of these
milestones appears to be strongly related to long-term prognosis. For example, using language productively and flexibly by age
five was the best single predictor of positive outcomes for a large sample of children with autism. Early language development
has not been studied extensively in autism. Children with autism often exhibit echolalia to a greater degree than other children,
with of without developmental disabilities.
Immediate echolalia appears to tap into the person’s short-term memory for auditory input. Immediate echolalia was once
defined as the meaningless repetition of a word or word group just spoken by another person. Researchers determined that
immediate echolalia often was used with clear evidence of purposeful communication. Persons with autism who repeat what
you just said (including the questions you ask) come to mind when we think of immediate echolalia. The child who responds
to, “Do you want a cookie?” with “Do you want a cookie?” may or may not want a cookie. This is the bewildering world of
immediate echolalia for the parent or teacher.
Immediate echolalia may be used with no intent or purpose or may have a very specific purpose for the individual. Immediate
echolalia may also be used to initiate or maintain interaction or may be used in a no interactive manner. Knowing the person
very well would appear to be the key to understanding their specific use of immediate echolalia. Those who do speak often
use language in unusual ways. Some seem unable to combine words into meaningful sentences. Others repeat the same phrase
no matter what the situation, or speak only single words.
Delayed echolalia has been defined as the “echoing of a phrase after some delay or lapse of time. Persons with autism who
repeat TV commercials, favorite movie scripts, or parental reprimands come to mind when we think of delayed echolalia.
Delayed echolalia appears to tap into long-term auditory memory, and for this reason, may be a different phenomenon from
immediate echolalia. Because it can involve the recitation of entire scripts, delayed echolalia, is often thought to denote
evidence of near genius intellect. This may or may not be the case.
Delayed echolalia may be interactive or no interactive and may be used with no intent or purpose or may have a very specific
purpose for the individual. There appears to be more potential functions for delayed echolalia than were found for immediate
echolalia. A key to understanding the specific use of delayed echolalia in any individual is awareness of the individual’s daily
behavior and familiarity with their verbalizations.
The common stereotype of a person with autism is that he or she is “in a world of their own.” Echolalia is one of those easily
identified symptoms which are so strangely different from what is termed “normal” that it seems to support the stereotype.
However, when one looks at the communicative nature of their echolalia, the stereotype begins to lose credibility. Persons
with autism do interact and do communicate; however, they do so in different ways. Most children use echolalia as a normal
way to learn language. The majority of children babble in rhythmic way, which is actually mimicking the pattern of our
language. Later, they copy sounds, words, and eventually phrases and sentences that they hear adults use in specific,
Gestalt form of language is described as organized wholes rather than as of distinct parts, maintaining that the whole is greater
than the sum of its parts. Learning language in gestalt form would be learning it in chunks rather than the tiny component
sounds and specific meaning of each individual sound or word. For example, “Mommy” comes to mean “Mommy” because
of the whole of the experiences, that is, the smell of Mommy, the house where Mommy lives, the shape of Mommy, the
sound of Mommy, etc. Children begin to analyze the way language is used in other contexts and come to understand that
“Mommy” is a word that can represent other things besides the whole of their experience with their specific “Mommy”.
Echolalia was once thought of as just another inappropriate behavior to eliminate in a person with autism; however,
researchers currently see it as a developmental phenomenon that occurs within the child’s normal cognitive and linguistic
Some researchers see language as occurring in stages in persons with autism, however, these stages are not real delineations
of time or accomplishment, and rather they merely help one to see a progression from echolalia learning and language use.
Gestalt language acquisition does not just develop in persons with autism. It’s not just short cut in language. Gestalt language
acquisition comes from gestalt thinking or gestalt processing. One way of to describe it is the thought process is like thinking
in pictures. Persons with autism think and learn differently. This is the reason echolalia develops.
Persons with autism may have abilities which include: excellent rote memory for both visual and auditory information and
proficiency in tasks demanding visual spatial judgment and visual spatial pattern recognition.
Echolalia most likely is not something that we have unintentionally reinforced in the child with autism. It’s believed that more
than likely echolalia is something that is essentially rewarding to the child. It encourages the child to actually be able to match
what others say. Many children with autism become experts not just at echoing the content of what is said by others but also
the voice, inflexion, and manner in which the words were originally spoken. The value of echolalia for the person may be that
the echoed words and significant cues become stored information for the person to refer to later as internal rehearsal of the
The presence of echolalia has actually been identified as a positive sign in persons with autism. It was found that the presence
of echolalia is an important predictor for future language growth. It was discovered that children with autism who were
echolalia developed good phrases speech later in life whether or not they received intensive language training. Echolalia is one
of the phases of normal language development, it would appear that continued echolalia indicates that the person with autism
is “stuck” at the level of development for a time but they seem to overcome it and develop more normal speech patterns.
Children, who were once mute and later develop good speech, inevitably have passes through an echolalia stage in their
Far from being a useless practice, echolalia has actually been used to teach receptive naming of objects to persons with
autism. Regardless of the usefulness in echolalia for the autistic child the habit can interfere with social interaction and
learning. Therefore, most researchers focus on helping the person move to a more creative form of language. It’s noted that
the person with autism was more likely to use echolalia when he or she had not learned an appropriate response to the
question or command. Echolalia can be a persistent and annoying problem for persons with autism, their families, and
teachers. Echolalia is a functional step in the person with autism’s cognitive and language development.
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