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Why Does My Child With Autism Repeat Words and Phrases?

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Updated January 23, 2014

Question: Why Does My Child With Autism Repeat Words and Phrases?
If you're the parent of a verbal child diagnosed with autism, you may have heard your child repeat bits and pieces from videos or other sources. This type of communication is called "echolalia." It's a unique form of speech - and though it's thought of as a "symptom," it can also be a great place to start working with your child.
Answer: Echolalia is literally the repetition of words and sounds a person has heard either recently or quite a while ago. Verbal children with autism are often echolalic, which means they do use words (and sometimes even use those words appropriately) - but their word choice is based on a memorized pattern.

Sometimes echolalia is immediate. For example, mom says "Johnny, do you want a drink?" and Johnny responds "You want a drink." Just as often echolalia is delayed. A child hears a line on TV such as "got milk?" and later, when he's thirsty, may say "got milk?" in exactly the same tone and accent as the ad on TV.

In both of these cases, the echolalia may sound strange or even rude - but in fact it's a method your child has developed for communicating his wants and needs, verbally. The fact that he has done so means that he is able to do much more, with the help of a speech therapist.

In some cases, echolalia is less functional - but it's usually a good starting point for speech and/or play therapy. For example, a child might memorize entire segments of a favorite video, and recite them over and over. The child's purpose in reciting may be to calm himself or reduce anxiety - but the recitation may also indicate a real fascination for aspects of the video.

In this case, play therapy such as Floortime and speech therapy with a therapist familiar with pragmatic speech therapy can help your child to use her language skills more and more appropriately. In the long run, your child's echolalic speech will almost certainly become more typical and functional.

Learn More About Autism Symptoms, Types of Autism and Autism Diagnosis

References:

Schuler A.L. . Beyond echoplaylia: promoting language in children with autism.Autism. 2003 Dec;7(4):455-69.

Damico JS, Nelson RL. Interpreting problematic behavior: systematic compensatory adaptations as emergent phenomena in autism. Clin Linguist Phon. 2005 Jul-Aug;19(5):405-17.

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