Echolalia is defined by MedicineNet.com as the parrot-like repetition (echoing) of a word or phrase just spoken by another person. Echolalia is not just a feature of children with autism but is exhibited by individuals, with or without other development disorders such as schizophrenia and Tourette syndrome. Although, echolalia may be irritating for those who have yet to understand it for others such as Speech Therapist and Behavioural Interventionists it becomes a valuable tool.
For children with autism who have limited speech their urges to repeat words or phrases that someone else has just spoken will inevitably aid in their language development. It is similar visiting a foreign country and mimicking the sounds of a language you have never heard. When a street vendor points to an apple and says, mela it is probable that you will repeat it in hopes that you can remember the word and recognize it the next time it is heard. For roughly 85% of children with autism that display echolalia most will eventually develop speech which should be reassuring as some children with autism will never develop functional speech.
Echolalia can be classified in two categories immediate echolalia and delayed echolalia.
Immediate echolalia occurs when an individual repeats what has just been said. An example of this would be a child repeating, Would you like a drink? after it has been asked of them. Delayed echolalia occurs when a phrase is often repeated over periods of various lengths of time. A child that displays delayed echolalia may recite movie scripts, commercials or even parental reprimands. Both, immediate and delayed echolalia can be exercised as a way to initiate or prolong interaction or may have an explicit function for the individual. It is uncertain whether the need to repeat words or phrases spoken by another person is strictly for comfort.
What most should keep in mind, when they are searching for a treatment for echolalia, that echolalia is in fact a constructive behaviour. It is a positive prognostic indicator as children who display echolalia will have further communicative expansion. Not to mention, most children in the early stages of development rely on mimicry to develop speech. While echolalia can interfere with a child's progress in education and communication remember that this is only temporary. As speech increases echolalia will decrease. Reinforcement is highly beneficial in the pursuit of reducing echolalia. Using verbal prompts for example say this a parent or teacher can then point to an object or diagram. When the child repeats the word the adult should confirm that they are right by saying it one more time.
An example of this would be if a child pointed to a car. The adult would say, "Say this, car." The child might say, "Say this, car" or simply say "car." If they say the latter they are on the right track and the adult should say, Car, that's right and praise the child. If the child repeats the whole thing "Say this, car" the adult should resort to omitting the "say this". Eventually, through echolalia the child will learn more words and eventually how to respond to verbal prompts.
A parent or teacher should never feel frustrated with the child. Bear in mind that this is a stage and it will pass. In coordination with an interventionist or therapist a parent or teacher can learn how to work around the presence of echolalia. The child is, however, displaying speech and for this a parent/teacher should be thankful.