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Using Echolalia to Communicate for Children with Autism

This article shares some ways we can use echolalia to help children with autism improve their communication and speech development.

What is echolalia?

Echolalia is the repetition of what someone has said. For instance, when you ask your child “Do you want a cookie?”, your child may repeat “Do you want a cookie?” back to you. Hence, echolalia had been perceived that a person with autism is “in a world of their own”. However, this phenomenon occurs for both typically developing children as well as children with autism. Moreover, echolalia is key to developing language and generating speech, where children with autism who displays a greater frequency of echolalia tend to have better language development. Thus, echolalia should not be eliminated and instead be used to improve the communication of children with autism. Below are some ways to use echolalia to improve communication and generate speech. Additionally, to better understand this phenomenon, some of the other functions that echolalia may have for children with autism have also been highlighted in this article.

How to make use of echolalia to improve communication?

Firstly, a way to make use of echolalia to improve communication in children with autism is to get them to request a desired item from you. This is because the level of motivation to communicate for the item is high. To help your child communicate with you, identify situations when your child desires for something. For instance, when your child wants a toy car, hold on to the toy car such that your child can see the car, and ask your child “What do you want?” and then immediately giving your child the verbal prompt by saying “I want toy car”. Wait for your child to repeat after you “I want toy car” and then give the toy car to your child. This will help reinforce your child to repeat after your sentence when they desire for the toy car. Over time, helping children learn the words for requesting can help improve their communication with you. It is also important to pause to allow your child to communicate and repeat after you instead of repeating the sentence or phrase over and over to your child.

Secondly, we can make use of your child’s tendency to repeat after speech to help them learn new labels. With a visual cue of having the object in sight, such as holding a pencil, ask your child “What’s this?” and immediately saying “pencil” so that your child is prompted to repeat “pencil” after you. When your child repeats after you, immediately reinforce this behaviour by praising your child and giving your child something they want.

Thirdly, we can teach children to learn how to say “I don’t know” to questions they don’t know the answers to. Children with autism tend to use echolalia and repeat after your question when they do not know how to respond to the question or instruction they have heard. To help them learn to respond with “I don’t know”, prepare a series of questions, some of which your child knows and doesn’t know the answers to. When asked a question they don’t know the answer to, immediately prompt them the answer “I don’t know”. For instance, you can ask your child “How do cars fly? I don’t know”. When your child repeats “I don’t know” after you, immediately reinforce your child with something desirable, so that they learn to communicate that they do not know the answer to the question.

Understanding other functions of Echolalia for children with autism

Echolalia can be useful for language development where it can be used to get children to request for desired items and to learn new labels. Echolalia can also be perceived as an interactional phenomenon when it is used for negotiation and distraction.

  • Negotiation: Echolalia is also used by children with autism to negotiate with their conversational partner, such as when it is near the end of a desired activity. For example, when a mother is indicating the end of a bath time by saying “one more minute”, a child echoes “one more minute” at a much slower rate than his mother. This indicates that the child negotiating with his mother for a longer bath time.

  • Distraction: Echolalia can also be used as a distraction and a topic shifter, and this usually occurs when the conversational partner of the child raises an undesirable topic. For instance, a child may echo words that he had previously heard to shift the topic to one that is of greater interest to him or her.


In conclusion, echolalia in children with autism can be used to encourage language development by using it to help children request for desired items and to learn new labels. Echolalia may be engaged to help children with autism negotiate their desires with their conversational partner, as well as to distract their conversational partner from undesirable topics and instead steer them to more interesting topics. Hence, instead of eliminating echolalia in children with autism, we can tap on it to boost communication and speech development in children with autism.

Written by Sylvia.


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Sterponi, L., & Shankey, J. (2013). Rethinking echolalia: Repetition as interactional resource in the communication of a child with autism. Journal of Child Language, 41(2), 275-304. doi:10.1017/s0305000912000682

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