When my daughter Jess was a toddler, we had a set of board books about the Disney Babies, which were the “baby” versions of Mickey, Minnie and Donald. Jess loved these books. For months, every night we had to read her the Disney Baby books at bedtime. The opening line of one of the books was
“It’s a bright sunny day. The Disney Babies go out to play.”
How do I remember that? Because to this day, I’ll still occasionally walk outside and say, “It’s a bright sunny day” and if The Scientist is around he’ll reply with some variation of “Mickey and Minnie go out to play.”
Yes, he remembers it wrong but that’s not my point. My point is that this is what delayed echolalia looks like in someone who has functional language skills. More than twenty years later, I associate that story with good feelings. Reading it made Jess happy and as she learned to talk, she would “read” the book to me, reciting the lines that she’d memorized.
It’s a bright sunny day has very specific emotional associations for me; It’s shorthand for feeling good about the day ahead.
What is Echolalia?
Echolalia is a fancy word for the repetition of spoken words. For typical toddlers, it’s a transition period in language development. For autistic people who don’t have functional language skills, it’s a means of communication. For me, it feels like a kind of ‘found speech’, similar to the cast-off pieces of pipe and rusted metal that an artist might use to make a sculpture.
There are two types of echolalia: immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia is the echoing of words that someone has just said. It could be an entire sentence, a phrase or a word. I heard a good example of this at the zoo last weekend. A man beside me said to the young child with him, “are those zebras real or in a book?” The child immediately replied “in a book” even though two very large zebras were walking toward him.
In this instance, it was obvious that the boy was repeating the last few words spoken. But what if the man had asked him, “do you want to see more animals or go home?” If automatically he said “go home” because it was at the end of the sentence he might be really upset when he found himself getting bundled into the car before he’d seen the monkeys and the tigers. Immediate echolalia can cause miscommunication–which may lead to meltdowns–if adults aren’t careful with how they word questions.
Delayed echolalia is the repetition of speech after time has passed. Sometimes it takes the form of lines from TV shows, movies, video games or books. Other times it may be words that were spoken by family members, friends, teachers or caregivers. Everyone, even typical adults, engages in delayed echolalia occasionally. Lines from movies and TV shows enter the cultural lexicon and become shorthand ways of communicating. For example, if you know the origin of “that’s what she said” your reaction to the title of this piece will be different than the reaction of a reader who isn’t familiar with the context that phrase is often used in.
Autistic people often develop their own collection of stock phrases–called neologisms. These have specific meaning for the speaker but may not mean much to anyone else. For example, a child might use a phrase like “TV is broken today” to express upset. Why? Because one day when he wanted to watch his favorite video, his mom told him the “TV is broken today” and that phrase became associated with feelings of upset for him. When he comes home after a bad day at school and says, “TV is broken today” he’s letting his mom know that he’s upset.
Neologisms can be hard for listeners to understand, especially if the original context for the found speech is unknown. If you didn’t know my Disney Baby story and I said “it’s a bright sunny day” to you, you would probably find it an odd or somewhat meaningless statement. But when I say it to The Scientist, he immediately understands what I’m referencing.
Echolalia as Communication
To better understand how echolalia serves as a communication tool for people without functional language, it’s helpful to think about how we learn a second language. Before learning grammar, we memorize common phrases.
Comment ça va?
Ca va bien.
Comment t’appelle tu?
Je m’appelle Sylvie.
Those were some of the first things I learned in French 1 (Sylvie was my “French name”). I remember repeating those phrases over and over many times before I had any idea which word meant good or name or how.
As I learned more vocabulary and grammar, the lessons moved from unmitigated echolalia (the exact repetition of phrases) to mitigated echolalia, which is the substitution of single words within a phrase. In addition to ça va bien, I learned ça va mal and so on, gradually expanding from relying on echolalic interactions to forming sentences based on grammar rules.
Now imagine if my French teacher hadn’t explained how to put the phrases together into a conversation. What if she’d said, “Comment ça va?” and nothing more? If I wanted to engage her in conversation, I might have simply repeated back “comment ça va?” Echolalia, at it’s most basic, is a way of indicating interest in conversing. It’s saying, I want to engage with you but I don’t understand the words you’re using so I’ll show my interest by repeating them.
As a seventh grade French student I already had a grasp of language pragmatics. I understood the difference between an interrogative and a declarative statement. I knew that a question signaled the request for an answer. Many autistic children and some autistic adults, however, use echolalia to communicate because they haven’t yet mastered pragmatics. This is why an autistic child might ask for a cookie by saying “do you want a cookie?”
Imagine I said to you “blerg ick gump?” and then gave you a delicious treat. A few hours, later you decide you want another one of those yummy things so you walk over to the spot in the kitchen where you know the yummy thing comes from and say “blerg ick gump?” You have no idea what the words mean–and you certainly don’t know that you’re supposed to transform my “blerg ick gump?” into the correctly worded “norkle ick gump?” All you know for sure is that the last time I said “blerg ick gump?” a treat materialized, so what the heck, maybe it will work again.
If a child doesn’t yet understand that the interrogative “do you want a cookie?” is different from the declarative “I want a cookie” (or the correctly worded but completely different “may I have a cookie?”) they may use echolalia as a linguistic shortcut, repeating the phrase that always precedes the cookie to request one. The phrase itself has only symbolic meaning–it’s associated with the delivery of a cookie, which the child is trying induce.
When you think about it, the way we teach language to very young children is quite sophisticated. My French 1 teacher wouldn’t have expected me to guess at the answers to her questions, to simply know that the answer to comment ça va? is ça va bien. Typical children absorb a great deal of language pragmatics by example.
Autistic children, however, may need more explicit modeling. Instead of holding up a cookie and asking “do you want a cookie?” the parent of an autistic child who is echolalic could model the proper requesting language by saying “I want a cookie”, taking a cookie for herself and handing one to her child. With repetition and a bit of luck, the child will learn to say “I want a cookie” to make the request.
The Purposes of Echolalia
Like all forms of communication, echolalia has a diverse set of purposes. Generally, it can be divided into interactive and noninteractive. Interactive echolalia imitates the structure of interactions, even if the chosen words or grammatical forms are inappropriate. So a child can practice turn taking, an important conversational skill, by echoing what an adult says rather than producing unique speech of her own. Or she can request an activity by using a related echolalic phrase, such as saying “get your coat” as a way of requesting a visit to the park.
Even in people with more developed speech, echolalia can be used to buy time for a response or to assist with speech processing. I frequently repeat unexpected questions out loud–in a tone of voice that indicates that I’m querying myself–as a type of mitigated echolalia. This strategy pauses the conversation and indicates that I’m formulating a reply.
Barista: Do you want whipped cream on your latte?
Me: Do I want whipped cream on my latte?
People seem to find this oddly charming and slightly less weird than a long awkward pause during which I stare at the ceiling.
Non-interactive echolalia is the use of words for self-regulation, self-direction, rehearsal or stimming. While echolalia naturally decreases as a person acquires functional language, many autistic people engage in non-interactive echolalia alongside their developed receptive and expressive language.
Let’s look at the non-interactive forms individually, because I think many autistic adults use these in some way:
1. Self-regulation and self-direction: Repeating a word or phrase can be a way of mentally staying on track. For example, your boss says, “it’s important that you reformat the spreadsheet and email it to me as soon as you get back to your desk” and all the way back to your desk you repeat “reformat the spreadsheet and email it” so that you don’t accidentally wander off and decide to make copies of a report you’ve been meaning to distribute to your team instead.
In more acute situations, echolalia helps with calming or self-regulating. Sometimes when you’re panicking, if someone says “it’s okay” you might yourself automatically repeating their words in a reassuring voice to yourself. Often The Scientist will say something soothing when I’m spiraling into a whirlwind of upset. Repeating his words helps me to break the cycle of unhelpful thoughts in my head by shifting my focus to his more neutral or calming words.
There is a tendency for autistic people at all developmental levels of speech to become more echolalic under stress, which points to a strong self-regulation component to echolalic speech in general.
2. Rehearsal: Have you ever asked someone what to say in a situation and then used their words verbatim? In the meantime, I bet you practiced how you were going to say it, repeating the script until you had it memorized. Echolalia can serve as rehearsal for a complicated or anxiety-inducing verbal interaction. In fact, it could be argued that social scripts of any sort are echolalia, especially those we’ve picked up after hearing others use them.
3. Stimming: This is the form of echolalia that I engage in most. Someone will say something and I’ll repeat it because I like the way it sounds or the words are fun to play with. I’ll sing it or stretch it out or transform the words by changing syllables. Technically this is referred to as “unfocused” echolalia, but I think viewing it as stimming is more accurate. It’s a form of wordplay, but it’s also definitely a stim: I do it more when I’m stressed and it has a calming effect.
I’m also realizing that I have text-to-speech echolalia. I often read signs aloud or verbally repeat things that I’ve read. One evening I was stressed after a long day and had little energy left for making dinner. After reading over the recipe, I went to collect the ingredients, all the while repeating “prepare the pasta as directed, as directed, prepare the pasta, prepaaaarre the pasta as directttteeedddd, pasta, pasta, as directed, prepare the past as directed.”
It was completely meaningless and very very entertaining. By the time I was done cooking, I felt much better.
When Echolalia Sneaks Up on You
There’s a final form of echolalia that gets discussed less often. In addition to being the repetition of exact language fragments, echolalia can take the form of imitating a person’s tone of voice, pitch, rhythm of speech, volume and/or inflection. This is why a lot of autistic adults find themselves in the embarrassing situation of accidentally starting to speak like a person they’re spending a lot of time with.
I definitely have a tendency to pick up phrases and speech rhythm from other people if I spend more than a few hours with them. When I mentioned this to The Scientist, he asked if I thought living with him for so many years had influenced my speech patterns. He’s not a native English speaker so he speaks accented English. I’d never considered this before, but it might explain why someone at university who I’d just met said to me, “are you from another country? You have an unusual accent.”
If someone ever asks me that again, I think I’ll tell them I’m from Echolalia.