Echolalia Is Not “Meaningless” Speech

Why you should never try to stop or “treat” echolalia, especially in Autistic people

W‌hat is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the repetition or echoing of words or sounds that you hear someone else say.

Echolalia is an important part of language development for all children, and one of the ways children learn how to communicate verbally.

Autistics often use echolalia much more often than non-autistic people, and often continue using it in adulthood. This is partly because our language development can differ significantly from that of allistic (non-autistic) children.

Repeating, or “echoing” speech we’ve heard can be a stim, or a form of communication when we’re not sure how to convey what we want to say in our own words.

An important note

It’s also very important to note that echolalic speech may not always be a direct or accurate representation of what someone is trying to communicate. With verbal tics or disinhibition, a person may say one thing, but actually mean something else.

It’s important to know the person and provide various forms of communication to help reduce frustration, misunderstanding, and miscommunication.

Echolalia can be an important way to:

  • Communicate something we don’t know how to express otherwise
  • Reduce anxiety and mentally prepare for an unfamiliar situation
  • Engage socially and facilitate communication
  • Engage in repetitive behaviour as a form of self-regulation
  • Take time to process and think about something that was said

When you’re upset or anxious, what are some behaviours you perform in order to self-soothe, calm down, or self-regulate?

Some people tap their fingers or foot, some pace back and forth, some mutter or hum to themselves. Ever wonder why these are such common stress-induced (as well as stress-reducing) behaviours? This is, in large part, because they’re repetitive, which makes them soothing.

What about when you encounter a confusing question or difficult problem — perhaps a challenging question on an exam, a tricky bit of trivia, trying to solve a complex problem, or follow confusing directions?

Often people repeat the information out loud to help sort through it in their mind, to process what they’re reading or hearing, and try to make sense of it. This can be yet another benefit of echolalia.

Pathologizing helpful behaviours

Whereas repetitive thoughts (such as rumination) in those with OCD and depression tend to increase stress and anxiety, Autistic perseveration has been shown to reduce the incidence of depression, and to partially mediate symptoms of rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD).

Yet if you search online for Autistic echolalia, you will be met with a slew of articles calling echolalia “meaningless speech”, replete with advice for parents and clinicians about how to “treat” echolalia in autistic children.

Children engage in echolalic speech as part of language development, self-regulation, and self-talk. Self-talk is a way of processing our thoughts and feelings out-loud. It can help us regulate our emotions or behaviour, and make sense of events and thoughts.

Do you still catch yourself talking to yourself out loud when you’re under stress? If you’re looking for something and can’t find it, do you talk yourself through your last steps out loud? Do you sometimes mutter to yourself when you’re upset or confused?

Do you repeat words out loud to yourself when you’re trying to remember an important message? Do you repeat the lyrics to your favourite song over and over again? Echolalia can be an important tool for learning and memory, and it can also be fun.

While allistic adults may not engage in speech as repetitive as that of Autistics, and generally out-grow speaking to themselves out loud, allistic adults still do this upon occasion, largely because it is helpful.

Pick your battles

Believe it or not, we don’t actually need to pathologize, diagnose, manage, and “treat” every single behaviour that doesn’t meet with the neurotypical (NT) majority’s approval.

A behaviour that seems a bit odd to you may be incredibly helpful to another. If we stopped trying to turn everybody into a NT person and started genuinely valuing differences in one another, we might recognize this.

More people could stim freely without being bullied, ostracized, or treated like a criminal. Autistic children and adults could more effectively utilize echolalia as a form of language development, communication, and self-regulation, rather than having an important tool punished or “modified” away.

If someone’s behaviour does not cause harm or put anyone at risk, and may even be helpful, then just leave them alone.

If they’re an important person in your life, develop a stronger connection with them and get to know them better. When you make an effort to understand them, you’ll learn to appreciate their unique abilities instead of forcing them to conform.

If they’re not someone whose behaviour has any impact on you whatsoever, then mind your business, it’s as simple as that.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Keenan, E. G., Gotham, K., & Lerner, M. D. (2018). Hooked on a feeling: Repetitive cognition and internalizing symptomatology in relation to autism spectrum symptomatology. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 22(7), 814–824.

Patra K. P., & De Jesus, O. (2021). Echolalia. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. PMID: 33351445.

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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