Have you ever had that one annoying sibling when you were growing up that would torture you all afternoon by repeating EVERY. SINGLE. THING. YOU. SAID? No matter what you did, you couldn’t get them to break. It was like Chinese water torture.
Whether an autistic person is verbal or nonverbal, you may encounter the same behavior on a scene… from an adult. You ask them for their name, some ID, and other typical questions, and all you get back are echoes of what you’re asking. What’s your first reaction? “This smart *** is being non-compliant! WTH!”
I assure you, even if you witnessed them speaking in complete sentences prior to your standard questioning, the anxiety and distress an autistic person experiences during an encounter with public safety can result in the loss of their ability to articulate at all.
It may appear that they are being disrespectful but they are NOT. They are trying to communicate the only way they know how. It’s called echolalia.
What Exactly is Echolalia?
Echolalia is the repetition of phrases, words or parts of words. Naturally, younger children, while learning to talk, will “parrot” what they hear as part of the process. That’s not what I’m referring to.
There are two types of echolalia. You may be on scene with a teen or adult that is repeating back everything you are asking them instead of giving you direct answers. This is called “Immediate Echolalia.” For example, if you say, “Do you have any ID?” the person may immediately reply with, “Do you have any ID?” It will typically be in the same tone and inflection that you used.
By repeating back words, the person is actually demonstrating that they can hear you accurately, but may not immediately comprehend what you are saying.
According to friendshipcircle.org, some adults with autism explain that immediate echolalia is a way of communicating, “I heard what you said, and I’m still processing it.” Immediate echolalia is an attempt to remain in a conversation and give an on-topic answer, before the meaning of the conversation is fully grasped.
How do you support increased comprehension? Use visual aids, and involve as many senses as possible, but be careful not to overload them with too much sensory input. Also be aware that if you are offering two choices and the person verbalizes the second choice, they may be REPEATING the last thing you said, not actually answering your question or making the choice.
Back to the scene, you may ask, “Do you have any ID?” and the person may respond, “Cheeseburger,” or a punchline from a joke or TV show. This is called “Delayed Echolalia.” A person with autism typically likes to memorize and recite catch phrases, verses, portions of historical speeches, or funny scenes from their favorite commercial or movie. Unlike a neurotypical person that will retrieve a funny one-liner from a movie and throw it out for humorous effect in context, delayed echolalia will rarely be relevant to the conversation at all.
My son seems to have a new catch phrase almost monthly. We’ll be walking the dogs together and a neighbor will wave and say, “How are you?” My son might reply, “I am a person.” because that’s what he’s been saying all month, regardless of what the conversation entails. It will be his answer to everything until he finds a new catch phrase to repeat.
You should hear the variety of responses we get to that
Sometimes delayed echolalia occurs because it’s calming the person’s nervous system, a form of self-stimulatory behavior. Typically, however, it stems from wanting to participate in conversation but being unable to fully understand the content of what’s being discussed.
As easy as it is to assume non-compliance, it’s critical to realize that both versions of echolalia represent a desire for inclusion in conversation.
Share in the comments below if you’ve experienced echolalia with anyone before!