Echolalia – what is it?
Echolalia is the repetition of phrases or sounds one hears. Immediate echolalia means the immediate repetition of something one has just heard. Delayed echolalia means the delayed repetition of something one has heard some time before.
Echolalia often seems to be used interchangeably with the term “scripting”. However, echolalia means repeating sounds, single words or short phrases whereas scripting means longer passages from for example books or movies.
Echolalia can be witnessed in both verbal and nonverbal people. It is interesting to know that echolalia, while commonly associated with autism, is also witnessed in neurotypical children as part of their natural speech development.
For the longest time echolalia was thought of as being meaningless and many people still believe that today. It was thought that people with echolalia just mindlessly repeated things they heard and had no control over that behavior.
Echolalia is not just meaningless stereotypic behavior
Echolalia can have many purposes which might not always be obvious to people. Whether or not you are generally familiar with echolalia you might not “get” what it is used for in any specific situation.
Echolalia may be a way to self-stimulate. A person might enjoy the way a certain sound makes them feel, feels in their throat, sounds in their ears.
It may be a way to self-regulate. A person may be able to calm themselves down by repeating the same word over and over in stressful situations.
It may be a way to communicate. A person might be able to use the words of others instead of their own words which might not ever or not always be available to them.
Echolalia can be involuntary but it does not have to be. And once echolalia becomes voluntary it can very well be a way to communicate with others.
Someone with echolalia might not use their own words to convey what they want to say. But if you can select which words and phrases to repeat, echolalia can become a way to communicate.
This could be called echolalian scripting. One does not repeat the same sound, word, or phrase over and over as with pure echolalia. Instead one uses a specific word or phrase they heard before in use during a specific situation. Imagine this as someone reading off a script that runs only in their head.
When I think of communicative echolalia I think of Bumblebee from the movie “Transformers”. His own internal speech mechanism is broken so he communicates via playing recorded segments of for example radio shows.
When dealing with echolalia in communication one may run into trouble. Imagine you ask a child “Do you want the red shirt or the green shirt?” and your child answers “The green shirt.”.
You hand the child the green shirt and the child starts crying. That was a child with echolalia repeating the end of your question back to you and you thinking you had gotten a verbal answer to your question.
If this is a problem in social interaction it is important to offer nonverbal ways to communicate. Instead of asking which shirt a child wants and expecting a verbal answer you could hold out both shirts in front of a child and say “Please point to the shirt you want.”. This allows the child to communicate their actual wish without having to speak.
This is a very simplified example but I am sure you get the idea. If you know someone has echolalia keep it in mind when communicating. Make sure you offer nonverbal alternatives.
And watch carefully for signs that you might have misunderstood. Not everyone will always just start crying. Misunderstandings most likely happen a lot to that person and they might just stay quiet because they are currently unable to even make themselves heard.
Intense inside feelings can cause compulsory echolalia
I believe that echolalia can take different forms depending on the individual it shows in. I personally did not know the term echolalia until recently and just called it mimicking instead.
I mimic. Sometimes it is compulsory. That means it will just happen and I am not doing it willingly. It also means that I might be unable to stop myself. When I feel intensely about something it might hit me and I will not be able to stop until the intensity is resolved.
When it suddenly starts thundering outside I might repeat “That’s scary!” over and over until I get over the initial fear of the loud thunder and feel safe again. When I suddenly feel the urge to eat a banana I might repeat “Banana!” over and over to myself until I have one in my hand and can take a bite off of it. When I call for my husband in our apartment I might repeat his name over and over until he answers me.
The same thing might happen if I hear something and am just suddenly and without apparent reason compelled to repeat it. For me these are usually uncommon words or sentences I hear others say. But it could also be as simple as my husband saying “Breakfast is ready!” and me repeating “Breakfast is ready!” until we both sit down at the table and start eating.
So even though compulsory echolalia is not willful that does not mean it is also meaningless. I understand it as my brains way to remind myself of something until I fulfill the need my brain communicates to me through echolalia. Those are usually rather urgent needs that do need fulfillment quickly so my brain just makes sure I take care of myself that way.
Dealing with compulsory echolalia as an adult autistic in a non-autistic environment is not easy. Even my husband looks at me weird when it happens. He often asks me to “just stop” and both of us can get extremely frustrated when I cannot.
In public I try my very best to suppress my echolalia. If it does break through, I usually manage to stay very quiet and at least just whisper. There have been times when my inside became so intense that I did show my echolalia in public.
People do stare. If it is about something fun, happy, and exciting people seem to be okay with it. They just assume I am so abundantly happy that I cannot hold it in. And in a way they are right.
If it is about something upsetting people seem to get kind of unsettled. Even though I usually have trouble with empathy I can relate to this one: When I imagine someone next to me suddenly starting to repeat “I’m going to faint!” over and over I would get nervous about them fainting myself. It would not be a pleasant situation to be in.
So I understand that public echolalia may bother people. Just know that it is nothing to be afraid of. It is just someone repeating something over and over. If the person echoing is alone, do not be afraid to actually step in and try to help them.
If it is obvious what they want or need go ahead and help them out. If they are with somebody that person most likely knows how to help but feel free to ask anyway. Offering help is never wrong as long as it is done kindly.
Seeking a positive inside feeling can cause voluntary echolalia
The other way my echolalia shows itself is voluntary. There are sounds, words, and phrases I hear that are extremely pleasant to me. I cannot really explain how exactly that pleasant feeling manifests itself.
What I do know is that it makes me want to repeat experiencing that pleasant feeling. So logically, if hearing a sound, word or phrase makes me feel good all I need to do to feel good again is repeat it.
Unlike involuntary echolalia as described before, voluntary echolalia has a conscious purpose. It makes me feel good. For me voluntary echolalia turns into a kind of stimming. It becomes a repetitive behavior that I use to feel good.
The line between actual echolalia and verbal stimming is very difficult to draw for me. I would call my verbal stimming echolalia if it starts as just a sound, word, or phrase and then I am compelled to repeat it over and over because it feels good.
I might watch a video online and suddenly I hear a word that captivates me. I will then repeat that word over and over. The same kind of thing happens with some advertisement jingles on TV or the radio. It also happens when I hear a song that somehow triggers a positive sensation.
Another kind of echolalia is repeating sounds, words, or phrases of off oneself. This is called Palilalia.
I might start humming to myself without noticing. After a while mindless humming will turn into some kind of short melody. And once my brain found that perfect few-tone melody suddenly palilalia sets in and I repeat the same humming melody over and over.
All of the above are direct echolalia behaviors. I hear something and immediately start repeating it over and over. Another way I mimic is delayed echolalia, so repeating something I have heard a while ago.
This might happen with catch phrases or scenes from movies I like. I remember the movie and say a phrase from that movie to myself over and over. This might also happen with things other people have said to me that were somehow captivating enough to stay catalogued in my brain.
Now when echoing people I find that the ones who do not know that I am autistic are not pleased about my mimicking. I am aware that mimicking someone is often a way to ridicule and make fun off them for non-autistic people. So misunderstanding are ensured.
I love that my husband knows about my autism and I am allowed to echo him as much as I like. I really love my husband’s voice and will often repeat words he says.
Generally mimicking others is actually a way for me to feel closer to them. More like them. It is something I generally do – not just with echolalia. I will mimic words, phrases, but also tone of voice, ways to dress, ways to move, interests, hobbies and so on. All in an effort to become more like the people around me so that they in turn might accept me more.
Communicating with borrowed words
Speech is often problematic for autistic people. I am no exception there. I do not think in words, I think in pictures and sensory impressions (smell, sound, taste etc.). That is why putting my thoughts into actual spoken words for others to understand is difficult for me.
There are times when I just cannot find the right words inside myself to say what I want to say. This may be because I just do not know the words. Or it might be because I am incapable of going through the process of turning my inside images into your outside words.
Whenever I am unable to find my own words I might be able to use borrowed words instead. Something I have said before. Or something I have heard someone else say before. Going through an existing list if words and phrases I know can be easier than trying to come up with new ones.
This kind of scripted echolalia is helpful in everyday situations. If the situation is positive, it can feel real good to be able to get words out. Even if those words are just borrowed. If the situation is negative, echolalia can help in a bind but it also does not feel great.
If somehow stressed out and depending on borrowed words, the words I borrow never feel like they are truly mine. I may be able to use these words to convey the core message of what I am trying to say. But I will not be able to make it sound “just right”.
So while echolalia for communication purposes might help me out in a bind, it is not always something that feels good for me. I prefer my own words when communicating. I will always be thankful if someone I am with allows me to take a break and not speak for a while instead of being forced to use echolalia to stay in the conversation. This is also the reason I much prefer written communication.
Here are some other people’s thoughts on echolalia: