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Echolalia in autism refers to the repetition of words or phrases at random moments. While some may consider echolalia to be meaningless repetition of sounds, there are signs that suggest that it is actually an attempt at communication, and may help some people with autism eventually learn to speak in contextually appropriate ways.
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What, exactly, is Echolalia?
Echolalia is defined by MedTerms.com as "The involuntary parrot like repetition (echoing) of a word or phrase just spoken by another person. Echolalia is a feature of schizophrenia (especially the catatonic form), Tourette syndrome, and some other disorders."
What this means is simply that echolalia is a repetition or "echoing" of words or phrases heard by the person. This can be expressed in a number of ways; from repeating a phrase directly after hearing it, to a word or phrase being used hours, days or even weeks or months after it was originally heard, exactly as it was originally heard. There is some question as to whether or not echolalia is truly involuntary and meaningless when used by some people with autism.
Echolalia can be disturbing for some people to hear because many autistics have a talent for mimicry and can echo a voice or inflection almost exactly.
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Causes of Echolalia
The word "echolalia" is used to refer to a completely normal stage of infant development in which young children imitate sounds when learning to speak. However, when used by people with autism, echolalia can also become a tool to communicate emotions, thoughts, or desires in people who might otherwise be limited by their disability.
Some children have been known to quote the words of a favorite cartoon character reacting to a "bad person" to express fear, while others might quote a romantic line from a movie to show affection. This implies that echolalia is not involuntary behavior but a conscious and purposeful intent to communicate and interact.
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How to Deal with Echoing
Many parents and caregivers can feel overwhelmed or disturbed by echolalia, particularly if the person with autism tends to repeat everything they hear. It is important to identify what the person is doing by echoing. Is the person using a phrase or word that is contextually appropriate to the conversation or what is happening? For example, a person quoting Star Wars by saying "It's a trap!" might be "stimming" or self-stimulating because they like how the words feel to say. Or if they always say it when they encounter a person they dislike, it may be a sign that they are afraid or angry at the person.
Children who echo are more likely to be verbal, and some children transition from non-verbal to verbal by using echolalia, the same process infants use to learn language. Echolalia in autism can also help improve motor skills as the person learns to control their mouth to speak. Quite often echolalia is in and of itself what is called an "unconventional verbal behavior" or a non-typical manner of communicating.
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1. Definition of Echolalia--http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=26315
2. Autism Papers: Increasing Expressive Skills for Verbal Children with Autism--http://www.specialed.us/autism/verbal/verbal11.html