Time for another installment in my “Understanding ‘X’ and Autism” posts, for all of those people out there trying to learn more and/or better understand their autistic friends and loved ones. For today’s post, we’ll start with a story.
The scene is about two years ago, December of my sophomore year of high school. Every year, my school has a day at the end of the first semester that occurs before finals but after the grades before finals have been finalized. In other words, it’s an academically pointless day but is required for attendance purposes. It is tradition to have a school-wide “Christmas Party” where teacher show movies in their rooms, there’s cookie decorating, stuff like that. On that particular day I was in a classroom watching a movie. The movie in question was the comedy Elf, in which Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human (raised by Santa’s elves) who leaves the North Pole to travel to New York to try to find his real father. Along the way, fish out of water hilarity ensues (Would recommend as a Christmas movie).
Anyway, I had just been watching the scene where Buddy confronts a mall-Santa because he’s “not the real Santa.” Around this point in the movie, I got up and walked out of the classroom (I can’t remember if I actually had a purpose for doing so or if it’s just because I tend to pace and wander). While I was in the hallway, the principal of the school saw me and said something like “Hi, Quincy, how are you doing?” I don’t process social questions like that out of nowhere very fast, however that doesn’t stop my brain from pushing a response out of my mouth, and so before I had even fully processed that someone had said something to me, I had impulsively responded with a script of dialogue I had just heard: “You sit on a throne of lies!”
I didn’t actually mean this to the principal, of course. It was a line that I had just heard, and so I impulsively scripted it in response to an unexpected approach. The moment I had actually taken in the situation and realized what I had just said I was briefly mortified, but the principal, knowing me and just generally being an all around good guy, just happily laughed. He knew that that wasn’t an intentional thought-out comment, and so everything was good and I didn’t get in any trouble or anything.
Personally, I think this is a really funny story, and I hope some of you out there could have a good laugh as well. But the real reason I tell you this is because it’s a perfect example of today’s topic: Echolalia.
What is echolalia?
Simply put, echolalia is the repetition of speech that someone has heard. Echolalia is a word you hear a lot in certain autism circles, however it appears to be very poorly defined. I just about facepalmed out of frustration when the first definition upon googling “echolalia” returns that it is “meaningless” and “a symptom of a psychiatric disorder.” Echolalia is not either of those things, at least not necessarily. Though, we’ll get to more on that later.
The first important thing for my non-autistic readers to realize is that echolalia is not just some strange, exotic, mystery behavior that only autistics undertake. Non-autistic people use echolalia as well. Every time you quote a movie or a song lyric in a conversation, that is technically echolalia. If you say goodbye to someone by saying “may the force be with you,” that is echolalia. You get the idea. However, in the context of autism, because autistic people process language and sensory input differently, our echolalia often goes beyond the neurotypical standard of intentionally and purposefully using a movie quote or two.
Echolalia can be either immediate, the repetition of a word or phrase that had just been said, or delayed, the repetition of a heard word or phrase after several minutes, days, or even years. Autistic examples of echolalia are numerous. There’s the fact that many autistic people, in particular very young autistic children but others as well, will “parrot” back things that were just said to them, echoing the words they had just heard. Many autistic people, again particularly young children but others as well, may speak a lot but speak almost entirely in echolalia. They may repeat words or phrases they heard just a few minute ago on the TV or ones from an entirely different part of their life. Other autistic people may become fixated on a single word or phrase, and repeat it over and over. These and multiple other examples show the breadth of how autistic people use echolalia.
I’m going to go through several different, well, “flavors” (I suppose?) of echolalia in an attempt to give some of the reasoning behind it, because despite internet definitions, echolalia is not often meaningless. Keep in mind that a particular person’s echolalia may fall into more than one of these categories, these are not hard and fast lines, but rather observations as to some of the different ways autistic people use echolalia. A person’s echolalia can certainly fit into more than one of these “categories,” even at the same time.
Echolalia as Stimming
A lot of autistic people are vocal stimmers. Vocal stimming can take on a number of different forms, and yes, it can include echoing and repeating words. As I’ve written a number of times before, stimming is not pointless, it is actually important for self-regulation. So, strike one against “meaningless” echolalia. Fixation on a particular word or phrase might just be due to the fact that that particular word feels good to say, and thus it’s acting as a stim.
Echolalia as Communication
If there is only one thing you take away from this article, it is that echolalia often is communication. It is not meaningless, and it is often used as a communication strategy by autistic people. Remember earlier when I mentioned autistic people who speak almost entirely in echolalia? Very often, it’s because they’re trying to use echolalia as a form of communication. However, this form of echolalic communication must be interpreted differently than typical speech, as it’s coming from a different way of processing spoken language. You must not focus on the literal meaning of the words or phrase being spoken, but rather pay attention to the context behind what’s being said. For example, an
autistic kid might approach a parent and say “do you want a cookie?” when what they’re actually trying to say is “I want a cookie.” In this case, the child is echoing exactly what their parent said to them when they last got a cookie. Thus, the context of the phrase is wanting a cookie, and that’s what’s being communicated in that case.
Another example, many autistic people repeat phrases they said or heard from earlier, whether that be earlier in the day or years earlier in their life. Again, communication lies within context, and very often the context in a case like this is to express emotion. A person says “there’s no more ice cream in the freezer,” and they mean that they’re disappointed, and are echoing something they heard the last time they were feeling that way. Obviously this is incredibly broad and varies from person-to-person, and so use judgement upon application. But very often, if an autistic person seems to speak only in “nonsense” statements, a big portion of that may be communicative echolalia. If there’s an autistic person in your life that you feel does this, remember that the biggest key is to concern yourself not with the actual words being spoken but rather their emotional or situational context.
Echolalia as an Impulse/Script
Echolalia may also be impulsive, or part of scripting. In the story I told at the beginning of this post, that would follow under this category. For many autistic people, our brains like to force words out of our mouths on impulse. Sometimes we’ll try to say a word and an entirely different phrase will come out instead, or in my case sometimes my brain just shove forward a word or a phrase. It’s scripting, and sometimes it’s echolalia.
This is exactly what it sounds like. Of course, the other forms of echolalia discussed here can also be intentional. But what I mean here is how some autistic people (and plenty of non-autistic people) will take most of their dialogue from other sources, applying it to in-context real world situations. An example would be someone who takes much of their dialogue from movie quotes, song lyrics, other conversations they’ve heard, the radio, etc. Of course, this is a communication technique, and a rather useful one for some
autistic people because it works like a short cut: we don’t have to work to get the words to come to us because the description for what we’re trying to convey has already been layed out. Often times, outside listeners wouldn’t even be able to tell that the person is mostly using echolalia. I remember that when I was little a good portion of my dialogue was this form of echolalia. Even now it still is.
I know it’s probably too late in an article to be introducing new words, but this one is easy, I promise. Palalalia is literally just self-echolalia. If someone repeats/echoes something that they themselves had just said, that’s palalalia. This is seen in many autistic people, including myself, when they say something and then nearly immediately start repeating the last word or last bit of what they just said. When I was little I would do this all the time, and I still do it all the time (and my sister loves to point it out when I do because she thinks it’s hilarious). I usually don’t even notice that I’m repeating my words, so I suppose for me this one falls under the “impulse/scripting” category as well.
So, I hope this has been useful in helping you understand what echolalia is, some of the reasons autistic (and non-autistic for that matter) people use echolalia, and a tip for understanding echolalia as communication. As per usual with these types of informational posts, I tried to weave in both my personal experience and the experiences of others that I’ve heard about to try to offer a broad basis for the topic, because of course autism is itself incredibly broad. That said, I encourage you to seek out other perspectives on anything autism. Check out my resources page at the top of the blog for links to some other autistic bloggers I recommend!
*Also, thanks to Miss Luna Rose of the Autistic Dreams blog (https://misslunarose.home.blog) for the inspiration for the cover graphic of this post).