The word “echolalia” finds its origin in the Greek word ἠχώ, meaning “echo” or “to repeat”,and λαλιά (laliá) meaning “speech” or “talk”. Oxford dictionary defines it as, “meaningless repetition of another person’s spoken words as a symptom of psychiatric disorders.” Children developing typically also show Echolalia between the ages 18- 36 months. This is the time wherein a child has mastered imitating words and at the same time, start imitation of phrases. With increase in vocabulary and improved comprehension, they start adding their own spontaneous speech. Hence, Echolalia can be seen to help in language development, communication, and practicing verbal language.
Children developing typically often show meaningful and interactive Echolalia as opposed to children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder, who more than often show non-meaningful and non-contextual Echolalia. The frequency of Echolalia is higher in children on the spectrum. Echolalia often involves repetition of person’s speech verbatim as well as imitation of person’s inflection, tone of voice, and volume. 85% of verbal individuals on Autism Spectrum Disorder exhibit Echolalia in some of the other form. Though Echolalia is often viewed as a symptom, it has positive implications when it comes to teaching language.
Why does a child repeat phrases and words?
Functions of Echolalia:
Theoretically speaking, Echolalia serves different functions for a particular child in any situation. A few functions and reasons for Echolalia are as follows:
- Sensory Outlet
Individuals on the spectrum repeat speech to cope with the anxiety and sensory overload in the environment. It has a calming effect.
- Trying to Communicate a Difficult Idea:
Children on the spectrum have difficulty communicating their thoughts, hence they use repetition of the speaker’s text instead of answering.
- Attempts at Using Sophisticated Forms of Communication:
This is also seen in Neurotypical children when they are transitioning from lower language processing abilities to higher language processing abilities, wherein, they pick up on phrases and generalize the usage of it in different contexts.
- Processing Language as a Whole:
Children learn language in chunks and this learning is called Gestalt style of language acquisition. Hence, a child may also imitate the tone and the emotion associated with the phrase and use the same everywhere.
What are the types of Echolalia?
Echolalia can be classified into two major subtypes:
- Immediate and Delayed Echolalia:
As the name suggests, Echolalia can be immediate, for instance, when if a child is asked ‘what do you want?’ the child replies with the question he has just heard.
Delayed Echolalia is wherein a child may repeat some phrases that he has heard earlier (like in a TV commercial). If asked, ‘what do you want?’ The child may respond, ‘Doraemon likes Dora Cakes.’
- Interactive and Non-Interactive Echolalia:
Interactive Echolalia is a way of communication intended towards a person. It helps the child respond to an idea using limited vocabulary. The example given above is also a form of interactive Echolalia. Here the child is trying to ask for cakes. But instead of asking directly, uses the phrases used by a cartoon character.
Non Interactive Echolalia is generally relevant to self, like instructing self through a task that is given. For instance a child is asked to complete a matching task. The child may constantly repeat ‘match it’. Another instance could be self-talking. This could be an attempt to practice a thought before conveying it.
It is important to understand the underlying causes and functions of Echolalia. This can help us in managing Echolalia better. Watch this space for more information on managing Echolalia. Our next article talks about how to use this ‘barrier’ in communication to develop communication skills!
– Miss Sukaina Lokhandwala & Miss Urvi Mange
Clinical Psychologists at NeuroGen Brain & Spine Institute
Masters in Applied Clinical Psychology