Echolalia in Children with Autism
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

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

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.

Echolalia Stereotypes

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, repetitive contexts.

Gestalt Language

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 maturation.

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 have may 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. The special abilities that posses.


Understanding Echolalia

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 event.

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 speech development.

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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