echolalia [ ek-oh-ley-lee-uh ] definition

Echolalia Definition: What is Echolalia?

  • “The uncontrollable and immediate repetition of words spoken by another person (echolalia, 2002).”
  • “The tendency to repeat mechanically words just spoken by another person (echolalia, 2002).”
  • “The immediate and involuntary repetition of words or phrases just spoken by others, often a symptom of autism (echolalia, 2002).”

The echolalia definition is that some children with autism may repeat or echo another person’s noises, speech, words, or phrases. A person with echolalia may or may not be able to understand others or communicate independently.

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Echolalia Definition in Typical Speech Development

Typical speech development actually includes echolalia. In order for children to learn to speak they first learn to imitate the sounds and noises, they hear from others. Eventually, a typically developing child will begin to take the words they first learned to imitate and string them together to create novel phrases and sentences.

Echolalia is a normal way for children to learn a language. Most children will use echolalia to learn a language. Have you ever heard a child use a word that is higher than their development age and be impressed? It’s because they are using echolalia. They heard someone else use the word and they are imitating them. This method of learning language is known as “gestalt”.

The word gestalt means whole. It means that we learn a language as larger chunks rather than as individual sounds or words.

A typically developing child will normally stop using echolalia to learn a language around 2.5 years old (Lovass, 1981).

It was previously thought that echolalia was a behavior to eliminate in children with autism. However, it is now thought that children with autism may use echolalia to communicate and comprehend language (Lovass, 1981).

Therefore, echolalia may be a normal step for children with autism to learn a language and comprehend language. In order to reduce echolalia in children with autism who use echolalia past the typical age of 2.5 years old may need to be taught a more efficient way to communicate and comprehend language.

Echolalia Definition in People with Autism

Children with autism who use echolalia can sometimes use language and sometimes complex language. However, their language can be those heard previously on a TV show, from a parent, a teacher, or something they read in a book. This language is often in the same word order, tone, and intonation.

Children with autism can use echolalia for several purposes.

  • Some children may use echolalia as a sensory outlet. It is a way to calm themselves or to help when they need to have their sensory needs met.
  • Other children with autism may use echolalia to help them communicate. This is the case when language is too difficult for them to formulate and create their own novel speech. For example, a student with autism may repeat a teacher’s words “say hello” in the exact say tone and intonation as the teacher instead of actually saying “hello” themselves.
  • In addition, some children with autism use echolalia as a form of “self-talk” to give them words or phrases to say during a difficult time. They are phrases that they may have heard from TV, parents, teachers, or siblings.

Immediate vs. Delayed Echolalia

There are two types of echolalia. One that is an immediate echo of someone else’s speech. For example, a teacher says, “Sam, do you want the circles or the squares?” Sam might say, “You want the circles or the squares.” or “Sam, do you want the circles or the squares?” This might be an appropriate response to say he wants both the circles and the squares, however, he doesn’t know how to use novel language to do so such as, “I want both,” “Can I have both?”

The other type is a delayed echo of someone else’s speech. For example, a child may watch a Disney movie and then use a line from the movie later to answer a question or simply use as “self-talk”. Some children with autism can recite larger amounts of a favorite tv show or movie and use the same intonation and tone of voice.

11 Best Ways to Reduce and Reshape Echolalia

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    Functional vs. Non-functional Echolalia

    Echolalia can be functional language or non-functional language that doesn’t communicate language.

    Non-functional echolalia can be a repetition of meaningless words. These words may be strung together in a logical order to be misleading and appear like the child is communicating. Some children with autism simply use echolalia as a calming strategy.

    On the other hand, there is functional echolalia which is when a child with autism uses a memorized phrase to communicate. For example, a teacher might have taught a student a script for when you meet someone new you can say, “Hello, my name is Sam” in the same tone and intonation as the teacher. So instead of creating novel greetings, “hi”, “hey how are you” they might always use the same memorized phrase. Although the child is using echolalia they are using it to communicate in a functional way.

    How to Reduce Echolalia by Reshaping Echolalia

    Echolalia is a form of communication. We can use echolalia and try to reshape it to help our students communicate in a more natural way.

    11 Best Ways to Reduce and Reshape Echolalia

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      1. Don’t Ask a Question: When you ask a child with autism a question it gives them the opportunity to repeat what you say. For example, “Do you want pizza for lunch?” The student might respond with, “Do you want pizza for lunch?” Instead, you can skip the question and give the student the correct response, to begin with, and they can practice repeating the answer. For example, “I’m hungry, I’m going to eat pizza for lunch.” Then the student may repeat, “I’m hungry, I’m going to eat pizza for lunch.” Another example, might be if a student goes to reach for a pencil and instead of asking, “Do you want the pencil?” and them repeating, “Do you want a pencil?” you could say, “pencil” or “I want the pencil.” In order for this option to work, you will need to know what the student likes or needs in a given situation.
      2. Model Appropriate Language: When working with the student give them the language they may need. If they want to refuse something, model saying, “no”, or “I don’t want to do that”. Some parents and teachers may not what the student to be taught such blunt sounding phrases, but having a student using language to refuse is better than having a student screaming or hitting to refuse.
      3. Use a Sentence Starter: Provide the student with the start of the appropriate response. For example, if a student wants to ask for a pencil the teacher can say, “I need a…” You can even provide the student with a visual of a pencil.
      4. Offering Choices: When offering a student a choice instead of asking them a question, “Do you want _____ or _____?” don’t ask them a question, but instead say the two choices in a statement form without the questioning intonation. For example, label the choices “pencil” “pen” then use a fill in the blank “(Student’s Name) wants _____.” and then wait for the student’s response.
      5. Practice the Sentence “I don’t know”: Ask questions of the student you know they don’t know the answer to and then provide them with the phrase, “I don’t know.”
      6. Avoid Using the Student’s Name at the End of a Sentence: Avoid praising your students using their name, such as “Good job, Ben” since the student will often repeat the whole phrase “Good job, Ben”. Also, avoid using the student’s name when greeting your student “Hello, Sarah.” That way when they repeat it will be “hello” instead of “hello, plus their name”.
      7. Model with a Partner: Ask another teacher or student your question and have them respond appropriately. Then praise that person for the correct response. You could model with a few people before asking your student with echolalia the same question and wait for their response. For example, Teacher Sara what do you want to drink with your lunch?” Teacher Sara responds, ” I want a juice.” You could then ask another student. For example, “Samantha, what do you want to drink with your lunch?” Samantha responds with, “I want a juice.” Then praise that student for their response and then ask your student what they want to drink with their lunch after observing a few models.
      8. Respond Literally: If your student uses echolalia you can literally respond to their question. For example, if the teacher asked, “Do you want a spoon?” and the student repeated, “Do you want a spoon?” the teacher could answer with “No, I don’t need a spoon, but it looks like you need something to help you eat your cereal with.”
      9. If Your Student Uses Echolalia: When your student uses echolalia you can use that opportunity to teach the student the appropriate response. For example, if the student repeats “what do you need?” the teacher can say, “I need help.”
      10. Pre-Teach the Correct Response: Teach the correct response to questions in a lesson. Then slowly fade the answer until the student can provide the previously given answer independently. For example, “What is the largest land animal?” Answer – “elephant”. Then slowly fade the answer – “elephant” and have the student answer the question independently.
      11. Look for Overstimulation Cues: Students who become overwhelmed stressed, worried, tired, sick, etc. can use echolalia as a form of self-regulation and self-calming strategies.

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        In conclusion, echolalia is a form of communication and we should be excited that our students are trying to communicate with us. However, for some students much of their speech is echolalia and we want to hear more of their own speech and their own ideas. Try using some of the strategies above to reduce the amount of your student’s echolalia.

        I hope you enjoyed this echolalia definition! Be sure to pin and share this with your SLP friends.

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          Heritage, American. “Echolalia.”,, 2002,

          “LOVAAS PROGRAM & DISCRETE TRAINING TRIALS.” Autism, PDD-NOS & Asperger’s Fact Sheets | Introduction to the Lovaas Program and Discrete Training Trials (DTT), 1981,