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Echolalia

Echolalia is the repetition of sounds and words without meaning. Learn why it happens and how to treat it. People with echolalia repeat sounds, words, and phrases that they hear, sometimes without intending to communicate meaning. Echolalia is often a symptom of autism. But it can also be caused by a number of other issues, such as apraxia of speech and

  • Posted on 18th Apr, 2022 15:30 PM
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People with echolalia repeat sounds, words, and phrases that they hear, sometimes without intending to communicate meaning. Echolalia is often a symptom of autism. But it can also be caused by a number of other issues, such as apraxia of speech and aphasia (both are speech issues caused by abnormalities in the brain).

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If a child or adult suddenly develops echolalia it is a good idea to seek medical care. This article discusses the different causes and types of echolalia and some treatments to consider. It also explains how echolalia in children with autism can be a step in the process of learning to speak.

Echolalia Can Be Part of Normal Development

Many children echo sounds and phrases as they are learning to talk. Some even mimic specific voices. If you hear your child echoing words and phrases, but they are also developing speech and other skills normally, you may not have any cause for concern.

Symptoms of Echolalia

People with echolalia "echo" or repeat words, sounds, or phrases. Sometimes the repeated words have no meaning, but they are often used to communicate. Echolalia can be disturbing to listeners because it sounds strange, but in itself, it is not harmful or dangerous.

Echolalia is sometimes referred to as "TV talk" because children with autism and other disorders often repeat sounds, words, and phrases from favorite TV shows—sometimes in the characters' voices. It is also referred to as "parrot talk" because it may include repeating words or phrases heard in school or at home.

Types of Echolalia

The types of echolalia include:

  • Functional echolalia is the use of remembered words or phrases to communicate. For example, a person with functional echolalia may say "time to wash your hands" to mean "it's time for me to wash my hands."
  • Non-functional echolalia is the use of remembered sounds without meaning. People with non-functional echolalia are not using the sounds to communicate, though they may find the process calming.
  • Immediate echolalia is the repetition of sounds, words, or phrases immediately after they are heard.
  • Delayed echolalia is the repetition of remembered sounds, words, or phrases long after they are heard.
  • Mitigated echolalia is the use of memorized phrases with some changes made by the speaker. Mitigated echolalia is usually intended to communicate. For example, the person heard "Are you going to Grandma's house?" and responds with "Going to Grandma's house" as a correct response.
  • Unmitigated echolalia is the use of memorized phrases without changes, with or without the intent to communicate.

Causes of Echolalia

Echolalia can be a normal part of speech development in young children. If it is not, however, some of the most common causes of echolalia include:

  • Autism spectrum disorder: A large number of people with autism (about 75%) experience echolalia, either for a period of time or for their entire lives. Echolalia in autism can be a functional tool for learning to speak, or it can be a calming activity that does not lead to communicative speech.
  • Aphasia: Aphasia is a brain disorder that can be caused by a stroke (a blockage of blood flow or bleeding in the brain) or injury.
  • Dementia: When echolalia appears in adults it can be related to the onset of dementia (Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's dementia, or another similar diagnosis).

Echolalia can also be caused by certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia (a condition with delusions, hallucinations, and disorganization), and it can result from stress and anxiety.

It's important to note that Tourette's syndrome (a disorder of making unwanted repetitive movements or sounds) is not a cause of echolalia. That's because the repetition of sounds in Tourette's syndrome comes from a different cause and has different features.

How to Treat Echolalia

In itself, echolalia is not a harmful symptom. In fact, it can be a useful tool for building expressive language, especially in autism. It can also be a way for some people to reduce their anxiety by vocalizing. But echolalia can be part of a serious disorder. It can also be disruptive in a classroom or community setting.

When echolalia is treated, treatment may have different purposes. For example:

  • A speech therapist may work with a person with aphasia to restore functional speech or, in young children, to develop speech.
  • A speech therapist may work with an autistic child by making use of echolalic words and phrases to build meaningful communication and even back-and-forth conversation. A play therapist or occupational therapist may also be helpful.
  • When echolalia is not functional and disruptive, a behavioral therapist may work with the person to reduce vocalization. When that happens, they may offer alternative (quieter) ways for the person to calm themselves.
  • Echolalia is rarely treated with drugs unless it is caused by stress and anxiety. When that's the case, it may be treated with anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication. In most cases, however, echolalia is treated by a speech therapist who works with the person to build expressive language.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Echolalia?

It isn't always necessary to diagnose the cause of echolalia because it's usually associated with an already-known issue, such as autism or aphasia. However, healthcare providers will usually want to conduct a physical exam if it comes on suddenly. They may also want to test for:

  • Head or brain injury, using scanning devices such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Stroke, using neurological exams as well as MRI or CT scan
  • Mental illness, using a variety of behavioral and psychological assessments
  • Dementia, using neurological exams as well as behavioral, psychological, and memory assessments

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If echolalia occurs in a child who is otherwise developing normally and does not seem to be impeding the child's speech development, there is no need to seek out a healthcare provider. You may, however, wish to consult your pediatrician to confirm your assessment that your child is developing normally.

If echolalia is a symptom of a known developmental or speech disorder, it is important to include speech therapy in the person's treatment plan.

If echolalia comes on suddenly, immediately seek medical advice. It could result from a head injury or stroke and should be treated right away.

If echolalia begins in older childhood or adulthood, even without stroke or injury, it is important to seek treatment. It could be the result of emerging mental illness or dementia.

Summary

Echolalia is usually a symptom of autism or a childhood speech disorder. It may be a stepping stone to functional speech, or it may be a self-calming activity. Echolalia in children is usually treated by a speech or behavioral therapist. When echolalia occurs suddenly in adults, it may be the result of an injury, stroke, dementia, or mental illness and should be investigated immediately.

A Word From Verywell

Echolalia is not always a problem, and it can even be a step forward for a child who is a late talker. It can also, however, be a symptom of a serious disorder. If you have concerns about echolalia, especially if it comes on suddenly, it's a good idea to consult a healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is echolalia common in autism?

    Echolalia is very common in autism. In fact, it may be present in up to 75% of people on the autism spectrum. Echolalia in autism may be an important step toward functional speech. It may also be a means for self-calming. In either case, speech or behavioral therapy may help to either channel or reduce echolalia.

  • Is echolalia common in ADHD?

    Echolalia does occur in some people with ADHD. While children with autism may use echolalia as a tool for communication, children with ADHD most often use it to calm themselves.

  • Can adults develop echolalia?

    Yes, adults can develop echolalia. While most children with echolalia are autistic or have other developmental issues, adults who develop echolalia are more likely to experience it as the result of a stroke, brain injury, mental illness, or a form of dementia.

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