Autism and Echolalia

April is Autism Acceptance Month! Let's work together to better understand the perspectives of our autistic friends & family by busting myths about autism.



Myth: Echolalia is non-functional communication and should be ignored.


Fact: Use of delayed echolalia, or scripting, is a natural form of language acquisition used by both autistic and non-autistic individuals as they are learning to communicate. There are two methods of developing language: analytic and gestalt. Analytic language processors develop language by acquiring words and gradually expanding to phrases and sentences. Gestalt language processors begin by acquiring longer units of language, which we describe as delayed echolalia or scripts (e.g., phrases from favorite TV shows or songs, frequently repeated or emotional language picked up from family and friends). Gestalt language processors gradually mitigate those longer utterances into individual words before expanding to novel phrases and sentences.


While it may be more difficult to understand the meaning behind echolalic utterances, the research is clear that echolalia is a purposeful form of communication (Prizant, 1983). Dr. Barry Prizant’s research demonstrated that echolalia is used by children to convey a wide variety of pragmatic functions (e.g., requesting, rejecting, answering, sharing information etc). Some examples include a child that repeats “are you ok?” when they fall or says “to infinity and beyond!” when they want to go somewhere. Rather than picking up the individual words ‘hurt’ or ‘go’, gestalt language processors will use these longer utterances to convey the same communicative intention.


Instead of ignoring echolalia, we can support autistic children by seeking to understand what they are trying to communicate. Speech-language pathologists can work to determine the meaning of echoed language, whether it originates from family, peers, tv shows, songs, or books. Through determining the meaning of these longer chunks of language, we can use the natural language acquisition process to support children in breaking down these scripts on the path to novel, self-generated communication.


To learn more, check out:

Blanc, M. (2012). Natural language acquisition on the autism spectrum: The journey from echolalia to self-generated language. Madison, WI: Communication Development Center


Blanc, M. (2013, March/April). Echolalia on the spectrum: The natural path to self-generated language. Autism/Asperger’s Digest. Retrieved from http://autismdigest.com/echolalia-onthe-spectrum/


Prizant, B. (1983). Language Acquisition and communicative behavior in autism: Toward an understanding of the “Whole” of it. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 48, 296-307.

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