In this introductory post, we’re providing you an overview of echolalia and autistic scripting.
What is Echolalia in Autism? What is Autistic Scripting?
Echolalia is the medical term for repeated speech and verbal imitation.
Scripting is a verbal tool used by many autistic people to assist with spoken interactions. Scripting may be considered a type of delayed echolalia, which we’ll look at below.
Before we look at echolalia as it relates to autistic people, though, it’s important to know that repeating sounds and words is a typical, expected, and necessary phase of language acquisition for young children. When repetition continues after a certain age or stage of development, echolalia may be an indication of a neurodiversity such as autism or Tourette’s Syndrome. There are also instances – such as with some brain injuries or illnesses such as Alzheimer’s – in which echolalia may occur, and are not related to autism.
For the purposes of this post, we’re looking at echolalia as it relates to autistic children and adults. Much of the older medical literature considered echolalia among autistic people to be meaningless; however, starting with a few researchers in the 1980s, a gradual shift in perception about echolalia has occurred. The medical community in general still categorizes echolalia as a speech disorder, but more recent clinicians and researchers view echolalia as a type of autistic communication:
Although previously seen by some as maladaptive behavior, an increasing body of evidence led most experts to recognize echolalia as a bridge to meaningful, self-generated speech with communicative intent.
~ Kylie Grace Davis, MS, CCC-SLP
Breaking Down Two Types of Echolalia Used by Autistics
Echolalia is divided into ‘immediate’ and ‘delayed’ types. Immediate echolalia happens within a very short amount of time and delayed echolalia can occur after a significantly longer gap (such as weeks or months). Speech-language-hearing pathologists, such as Kylie Grace Davis, advise that immediate echolalia is within “two conversational turns of [the] original language input, whereas delayed echolalia occurs after more than two conversational turns take place.” (Davis, 2017) Understanding the meaning of the repeated words or phrases can be challenging at times, but keep in mind that the autistic person is communicating, even if the speech doesn’t have apparent meaning to you (the listener).
One common example of immediate echolalia is when a parent/guardian asks an autistic child a question, such as “what do you want for lunch?” and the child repeats the question back to the adult. The child may be repeating the question as a way of saying “I heard your question and I’m thinking about it,” or because they don’t have (or know) an answer to the question.
How Is Autistic Scripting Related to Echolalia?
The idea of scripting goes hand in hand with delayed echolalia for autistic people. As Danielle talked about in episode 4 of the Neurodiverging podcast, scripting is a tool autistic people use in several ways.
Having a pre-planned or pre-rehearsed phrase in answer to a common question is one example of scripting. Using a script can give the autistic person time and space to process what was said to them and to come up with a response. Having to generate unique responses for casual comments and questions in a social or workplace setting can be exhausting for autistic people, and/or can lead to a sense of isolation in social situations. As Danielle mentioned in the podcast, she has several standard scripts she uses in social situations – for instance, when talking about the weather – which help her save her processing energy for other things.
In adults, another example is when an autistic person rehearses what they’re going to say prior to making a phone call. This can help the autistic person to organize their thoughts ahead of time as well as reduce anxiety related to making phone calls and/or speaking to strangers who are likely neurotypical.
Echolalia Is Meaningful Communication
While many medical professionals – not to mention online sources – view echolalia as a disorder that needs to be fixed or cured, it can be more useful to see echolalia and scripting as meaningful, valuable communication by the autistic person. Speech-language-hearing and mental health professionals can assist autistic children, their parents, and autistic adults in understanding echolalia and scripting, and to help communication be a less stressful and more rewarding experience for everyone.
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Tesni Linden lives in a quiet corner of New England with an amazing, supportive partner and their chatty, exuberant, lovable felines. Tesni has a wide range of interests which, at the moment, include reading, yarn crafts, and learning about the insects, arachnids, and reptiles in the area – and of course, researching and writing for Neurodiverging!