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Echolalia: is involuntary mimicry of accents in children a sign of autism?

Updated on May 14, 2012

Firstly ... what is echolalia?

Whilst everyone knows what mimicry is, echolalia is not so well known. It is defined as the repetition of someone else's words, phrases or sentences, even to the point of using the same accent and voice as them and can either occur immediately or sometimes hours later. When such a thing is done as simple mimicry it is merely disrespectful. When it is the involuntary mimicry of echolalia however, it is, sadly, usually indicative of some sort of behavioural disorder which can range from Asperger's Syndrome and other conditions on the autistic spectrum, to Tourette's and even on to schizophrenia.

Source
The Autism Awareness ribbon ...
The Autism Awareness ribbon ... | Source
The myna bird - a natural mimic or could autism extend to birdlife?.
The myna bird - a natural mimic or could autism extend to birdlife?. | Source

So how do you tell the difference?

Good question. But echolalia is not likely to be the only symptom presenting in the case of any of these disorders so it would become clear that it is not simply mimicry. Echolalia becomes apparent as a child develops and starts to speak. Often such children will talk incessantly and not actually say anything original but simply repeat everything the parent says. Naturally this can be intensely frustrating and even annoying for the parent of the child with this disorder. But there is another way of looking at this.

Could echolalia actually be beneficial to autistic children?

All children repeat words and phrases out loud as they try on words for size when learning to communicate. Speaking out loud is simply a normal stage of development before they go on to the usual internal dialogue of the grown up. An autistic child with echolalia however does not move on to that internal talk stage but remains repeating aloud the words of others.

Even so there should be some reassurance in the knowledge that at least the child has the ability to talk as in some forms of autism they can remain mostly mute all their lives. Once the ability for speech has been established then it may at least be possible to engage with them and try to encourage them on to the next stage of talking.

Trying to find the positive in echolalia.

The possibility of echolalia being a comfort to the autistic child could be seen as another positive aspect. It is well-known that the known and familiar is always necessary to autistic children who can become easily distressed when anything out of the ordinary happens. It is entirely possible that the repetition of well-known words and phrases may help them relieve their anxieties and stresses at such times and that echolalia may be more of a comfort to them than a distressing symptom. Echolalia in this case becomes a sort of verbal talisman, a verbal comfort blanket, a potent mantra to combat stress.

In fact the only people who really suffer from this condition are the parent's and carer's of autistic children and they usually know the importance of developing their own coping strategies for living with this frustrating disorder. Theirs is not an easy life and any small breakthrough can take on immense importance. Seeing echolalia in a slightly more positive light may help a little.

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    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Amanda and Michael ... apologies for late reply ... once again HP is not letting me know I have comments. I know a few people who watch TV programmes over and over again and can quote them. As you say, Amanda, it is usually the comedy ones ... I wonder if that is significant?

      And it does appear that some forms of autism at least shows a tendency for also being clever if not downright gifted. Once we would have just thought them a little odd, loners or some such but in my childhood village at least, they would have been accepted for who they were despite this. Fortunately.

    • michael ely profile image

      michael ely 

      6 years ago from Scotland

      Very good article Angie. Really interesting.

      Michael.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      6 years ago from UK

      The brother of a friend of mine loves to quote verbatim from TV comedy scripts. It doesn't seem to matter how many times he has run them past you, he will still find another opportunity to repeat them. (A bit like the BBC!!) I've always regarded this as autistic spectrum behaviour, and having read this hub, I'm sure I'm right. When we were growing up, mildly autistic kids were seldom labelled or identified, and consequently never given the appropriate help. In fact my friend's brother was sent to a special needs school for a while because of his odd behaviours, but later returned to mainstream schooling because he is actually quite bright. I wonder whether he would be treated differently now? It's a fascinating subject. Thanks for posting.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thanks, Nellieanna - and the same to you, TL.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Angie and Nellie,

      Hugs and x

      (Share them among yourselves as you see fit).

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 

      6 years ago from TEXAS

      Thank you for the kind reply, Angie. It does seem that autism has become a more and more sweeping affliction, judging by news and news articles about it. It's very sad.

      What's especially sad to me is our Ian's distress from that personal association with someone with such maddening responses. It aroused questions but your "Enough said" prevails, Ian. Hugs.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Don't blame yourself. It is better out than in.

      I still see the dreadful woman, and I no longer want to push her under a bus, but who knows?

      I also blame the brother for not having her "put" where she would be properly taken care of, but she was, and is, quite a nice little source of income.

      Enough said.

      Ian

      x

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hello dearest wingman ... I am sorry that this piece raised such distressing memories for you. Isn't it amazing how things occasionally said - or written about in this case - can inadvertently disturb others?

      As a child you would not understand that she had such a terrible, life-robbing illness. But she did and for your own sake it is now time to let the memory well and truly go.

      Sadly this may not be easy as the negative emotions of the time have most likely left you with a 'conditioned response' as us old hypnotherapists would say. I do hate psycho-babble but this is probably why the memory of that time is still so raw.

      My apologies again, dearheart ...

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Nellianna ... it is very kind of you to comment on the piece ... of course echolalia is only one relatively little known aspect of the many distressing symptoms of autism. Obviously I have barely touched the surface and basically I would not dream of trying. I am no expert ... I just found the idea of echolalia fascinating as well as upsetting.

      Bless you.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Lavender - your work enables you to see things from a different perspective to me ... so I appreciate you taking the time to comment so usefully.

      Many thanks ...

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Angie, you have brought back to me one of the most awful and disturbing times of my life.

      Years ago, I shared a flat with a friend. I saw the opportunity to buy a house, and in theory, he was helping with the payments, instead of paying rent.

      Unfortunately his mother died within the first couple of months of our sharing. He had a sister, severely mentally retarded, who had lived with the mother, and so he brought her to live with him.

      The nightmare began just there,

      Firstly, I must point out that in West Australia, as a child, the most annoying thing that a child could do to another would be to repeat EVERYTHING that child said… immediately. So the ground was laid.

      My friend’s sister repeated every word I said, not only after I had said it, but she could actually say it perhaps half a second behind me uttering it. Not only was it echolalia that she suffered from (She??? I was the one who suffered) but she had Echopraxia, which you will know is the echoing of movements of an observed subject… usually me.

      My chum and I had mutual friends, and frequently we would be invited to dinner parties or social gatherings and for some reason, many a hostess would put the girl opposite me or within range.

      Imagine picking up a wine glass, drinking from it, putting it down, picking up a knife and fork, eating, turning to someone and making a comment or laughing or whatever,,, and this girl (woman) would do precisely that almost in sync with me.

      Angie, I wouldn’t like to appear a nasty person, but I hated her so much. I still do. She was not only all of the above, but a liar, a foulmouthed accuser of me doing and saying things that I had not done.

      Echolalia? Echopraxia? ... Euthanasia, more likely.

      And I am jesting, but you know what they say about many a true word being spoken in jest!

      By the way, I have marked your hub useful, up, awesome and interesting because it is all of those things.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 

      6 years ago from TEXAS

      That is so sad if someone "doesn't move on to that internal talk stage, but remains repeating aloud the words of others." It seems unbelievable that might happen,- but it does help one understand what happens internally when a person can't make that natural move! I've never been associated personally with an autistic person, but I can well imagine what a major step that is in a person's development and, if not taken, how devastating it is. Also how important for the person's caregiver to recognize what's happening!

      Thank you for a quite well-presented understandable article, Angie.

    • profile image

      lavender3957 

      6 years ago

      I found this to be a very good hub on my part of a special education teacher. We don't know everything and learning from others is a joy to share with my students and faculty. Thanks

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Many thanks, Charlotte ... I researched it when my husband kept annoying me by imitating other people's accents. I'm hoping that was merely mimicry!

      All the best ...

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 

      6 years ago

      Wow this is really interesting! Thanks for sharing this, really enjoyed it.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thanks, Steph ... kind of you to comment.

    • Steph0596 profile image

      Steph0596 

      6 years ago from Ontario

      Very interesting, thanks!

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