Echolalia: Why Your Autistic Friend or Child Repeats Everything You Say

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Do you have an autistic friend or loved one who repeats everything you say all the time? Or do you know someone with autism spectrum disorder who's in the habit of talking to themselves?

It's called echolalia! It's common among young children, and autistics of all ages. Why do we repeat? Find out what's going on from an autistic mom's point of view.


🎧 Rather listen than read this post? This post is based off of Episode 4 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts | Spotify


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Notes:

In this episode, I commented on my daughter being overwhelmed by food choices in "a previous episode;" however, that discussion is actually in this blog post: Stuck At Home? 3 Steps to Organize for Autism, ADHD, Executive Dysfunction, and More

All About Echolalia: Why Your Autistic Friend or Child Repeats Everything You Say

Today we are talking about a question that I got in through an e-mail: Caitlin asked about scripting and autistic kids, and whether adult autistic people still script sometimes.

So, I'd like to talk about what scripting is, what it means, why autistics use scripts, and whether parents really need to worry about it or not. So let's get into it.

Scripting is also called echolalia, and it usually occurs in children. It's a normal part of language development for all kids, neurodiverse or neurotypical. However, it lingers longer in kids with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental delays, and many autistic adults continue to script for our entire lives.

Echolalia (scripting) is a repetition of words, phrases, and speech sounds (a.k.a. "utterances"), and sometimes also intonation. It's often excerpted from somewhere. So, the child watched a movie, or a parent was reading them a book, or another speaker said something in conversation that the child overheard. Later, the child with autism may then use that phrase and repeat it out of context in conversation, sometimes over and over and over again.

Sometimes it seems random to a neurotypical person, and to lack context within the conversation. This is called delayed echolalia; a repetition of the utterance after time has passed.

A child with autism will often script a lot during language acquisition; that is, when we're learning how to talk. But to answer Caitlin's question, even adults with autism script. I use scripts constantly myself. That's a personal experience. I know some autistic people who use them very rarely or only use them in certain types of ways. I use them all the time.

So, "Why do autistics use scripts?" is the main question. Like I said, children with autism who are younger and are still learning to speak use scripts in the process of learning to speak.

Communication skill acquisition is complex. It's difficult for kids to pay attention to the specific words people are saying on top of the social conventions that are taking place in a conversation. A lot of kids can only really focus on one of those things at a time. So they'll use a script so that they can focus more energy on the social conventions that are going on between two people or among a group.

Adults also use scripts similarly. A lot of us, and I'll speak for myself as an autistic woman, I have a lot of trouble following social cues in a one-on-one conversation, and it's even more trouble in a group conversation. I'm pretty much helpless in a group conversation. It's too fast. I can't keep up. I can't listen to the words and also process the the other social dynamics between people.

You're asking me to look at and recognize emotions from people's faces. I'm a little face blind anyway. So it's an extra ask. And then you're also asking me to follow sometimes a very fast conversation among people I don't really know, so I don't know their patterns yet. I can't really tell what they're feeling or what they're thinking and sometimes have trouble just understanding what they're saying in a very basic way.

My partner, for example, when he is excited about something, he drops nouns. He won't use specific nouns. He'll just use "it" and "them " and "they," and I cannot follow it. I have to repeatedly ask for him to be more specific in what he's talking about. It can be really frustrating for him because he's excited, he wants to tell me, and I'm like, "What does 'it' mean in this utterance? Can you tell me about 'it?'" That can be frustrating for him. And he is my partner and we lived together for over 10 years!

So in a in a conversation with a lot of people that I don't know, or people I don't know that well or can't follow that well, I will fall back on scripting as a way to clear up some mental space for myself to process all the rest of it. A lot of autistic people struggle to create speech that is spontaneous, that is generative. It's a lot easier to find a script in our head from something else and just repurpose it.

We've already probably processed that sentence or that couple of words, that phrase. We know what it means and we know different ways to utilize it. It's really easy for us to just plug it into a blank space. Generating words for that blank space is way harder, uses a lot more processing power, and just depending on who you're talking to, that processing power might be in short supply. My experience is that a lot of autistic adults still use scripting just to make life easier for themselves to get more done during the day.

I researched a little bit about this. Most of this is going to be about my experience as an adult and also my friend's experiences as adults and also my children's experiences. But I did look at a couple of studies on echolalia. I am not an expert, nor do I play one on TV, so do your own research. But what I found is that it's pretty well known from scientific studies on autistic kids that echolalia in general (so not just scripting, but all kinds of repeated phrasing) is used as a coping mechanism to allow an autistic individual to add to a conversation when they're having trouble generating the speech themselves. And that's basically been my experience, too. So my own experience seems to match up with what the scientists have found. So that's kind of kind of interesting to know from my perspective.

Now, scripting is for me a series of words or phrases that I can use that are dynamic, that I can memorize and plug into a wide variety of situations. So conversations about the weather (which my friends know, I love to complain about conversations about the weather) don't serve a purpose. They serve a purpose for a lot of neurotypical people because I understand that they create kind of a sense of community and a sense of trust for someone with that brain.

I'm not really interested in the weather. And talking about the weather with me won't create any kind of bond between you and me. Talking about something I care about or something you care about will create a bond for me. But I understand that a lot of neurotypical folks kind of go the opposite way, where they want to talk about something that doesn't really matter before they talk about something that's more emotionally tinted. Whereas, I am really interested in you and what you really think, that deep-thought-philosophical stuff. I'm not really interested in what you think that cloud looks like, unless it links to something that's important in your life.

But anyway, the weather is a really good place to deploy scripting. I can memorize a couple of different responses about the weather, and then when somebody asks me about the weather again, I have a go-to response that sounds relatively natural, that probably won't be interrogated further. So I don't really have to have backups about the weather, and it solves that social issue that I'm having of, "What do I say to this person without kind of costing me a lot of processing time or a lot of function?"

And I'll use those scripts when meeting new people. I have a couple of go-to topics that most people are interested in, where I can deploy a certain amount of of information about those topics and participate in a conversation. And hopefully by that time, we've stumbled into finding something we actually have in common. And I can pull off of that. But in general, I have a couple of go-to scripts that I use almost every day, certainly every week.

My experience is that a lot of autistic adults, especially those who are relatively verbal, do the same thing just to get through the day. A lot of autistic kids do, too. For autistics who are non-verbal, often we find that scripting and echolalia can happen even with alternative communication methods. So it's not specifically speech. It's most often speech, I believe. But you do see it in autistic folks who are non-verbal as well. And sometimes with them, it's more of the intonation. If they're not using words, they're using specific kinds of sounds to create this communication for themselves.

So now let's talk about why autistics use scripts, outside of having trouble producing spontaneous words? So there were five different ways that I came up with. I'm sure there's more. This particular bit I didn't do much research about because I'm not a speech therapist and I'm not any kind of expert in speech. This is just kind of my experience, again, as a mom of an autistic kid and as an autistic person myself. These are the five that I've seen come up most in my life and in my kiddo's life, and that I think are possibly the most relevant for at least for us and maybe for other people as well. I don't want to speak to things that I really don't know about. So here are my five!

The first is that autistics use scripts as a form of self-stimulation and also as a form of self-regulation. So you might have heard of stimming, and I've got to do a podcast on that, coming up. Stimming is a way we can self-regulate. It can be a way of exciting certain parts of our bodies or thoughts. Stimming is often physical, like I tap on things and I wiggle my fingers, and I pull on my hair. Sometimes people will rock or bounce or bang or thump on things. My kiddos like to thump on the floor a lot, or fall over and slump into the floor to get that big UMPH at the bottom of the floor.

There's all sorts of different kinds of self-stims, but one kind of stim is echolalia. Repeating quotes or phrases from a movie that you really like, or a television show you really like, or a book you really like, especially if it's a part of that media where you really identified with that character or you had a strong emotional reaction to it. You might repeat that kind of over and over, and it might seem very random to outsiders, but it fits in with your own thought process, where your brain is, basically what you're thinking about.

Sometimes it's if it's a script that's stolen, or a couple of words or phrases stolen from a real-life person who said something to you, you you might use it when you're having an emotion, a reaction that's similar to what was happening when you heard those words. Sometimes that's not it, but often it is. And because you're not in the autistic person's head, sometimes you can't see that that's what's going on. So it looks, again, random and out of context, but internally it makes sense to the person who's saying it.

So scripts are used a lot as a self-regulation also. As someone myself who is anxious and tends to get stuck on something and circle around it over and over and over again, I can use quotes that make me happy to trick my brain out of that, into a new context, to trick my brain out of thinking about something that I really know I shouldn't be thinking about anymore and to think about something happy instead. So that's again, a self-regulation that scripting can really help with.

The second reason that autistic people use scripts, that I could think of is as a processing aid: to move some of that burden off of my internal server and on this little script that just goes. I don't have to generate a new sentence about the weather. Every time we talk about the weather, I have a set of five go-to sentences that generally are good enough. That takes a lot of the burden off of whatever the rest of my brain is doing.

So don't underestimate the use of processing aids. A lot of us just don't have a lot of extra processing power. We have to process a lot more things one by one than neurotypical people do. A lot of your processing is automatic. Ours is, we have to do 1, and then 2, and then 3 and then 4. It takes a lot more [for us] to do things that neurotypical people do every day. It takes a lot more for autistic people to do that. So, any way that we could shift that burden off of our brains and put it somewhere else is really helpful for us, and scripting is one of those things that really helps.

Related to processing: the next thing is, autistics use scripts to gain themselves some more processing time. So this is echolalia in general. Kids especially use it this way. If somebody asks me a question and I can't immediately either understand the question or generate an answer to the question, some things I might do are: repeat the question; or spitball a couple of answers that really don't make sense or don't really relate to the question the person asked, but really is my brain trying to access an answer to the question. And sometimes it's again easier to just pull out a script that already answers the question. And I just have to find that script because I wasn't expecting it.

So for example, I was in the kitchen doing dishes and wasn't expecting to be social. Then somebody comes in the house and asked me about the weather. I was surprised. I wasn't really ready to talk to anybody. I maybe didn't save any processing power for this random question about the weather. So instead, what I'm going to do is give myself a little bit of extra processing time to grab those phrases that I have stuck down somewhere.

It can take an extra couple of minutes when somebody is surprised or overwhelmed or whatever. So if a child, especially, is using scripts a lot or or pulling speech out of movies or books or something, a lot of that is going to be to create more processing time for themselves.

The last thing I think that is the most common reason autistics use scripts is as a form of communication overall. And this is more related to small children, but sometimes small children with autism repeating what you said is them saying, "I heard you." Again, it can be hard to generate your own phrases and by repeating what you said, they are trying to get across the fact that they did hear what you said and maybe they don't really have a response to it, but it can be, "Yes, I heard you."

Or sometimes it can be, "Yes, I agree." Do you want to go to the store today? If the child says, "Do I want to go to the store today?' they might be agreeing that they want to go to the store today. Maybe not the best example for an autistic child, but there you go.

Some of us like to go to stores, though. So that depends on the child specifically.  You have to get to know the kid first and figure out how specifically they're using their scripts. But a lot of kids do this and it's pretty common. So that's something that's just important to keep in mind.

Also, a lot of us, this kind of ties in again with all the processing and the self-regulation. A lot of us are pulling out scripts that we think match what you're asking. So if there's a mismatch between what you think we're responding and what you actually asked, sometimes it's just because we're not reading your emotional cue the right way, or we misunderstood the context of your question. We're responding in a way that we think is correct, but it just doesn't match what you actually wanted.

So make sure [your question is clear], especially for low resource [people], a lot of us are very literal. A lot of us need (like I was saying with my partner and him always dropping nouns), a lot of us need you to be really clear, especially if we're tired, overwhelmed, etc. So go back and edit your sentence and make sure it had a noun, it had a verb, it had a subject etc. Just make sure that the kiddo or whoever it is can really [get it], that it's very clear. It's it's totally clear as a bell.

The other thing I would say regarding that is that if someone on the autism spectrum is responding with a script and it doesn't seem to match what you asked, sometimes because our script is related to something internal that you can't see. So we think we're responding in a way that's generalized and that anybody can access, but really responding in a really personal, unique way.

So especially if a script, especially with the kiddo, is pulled from a movie or a book or another kind of media, and that is related in our brain to something emotional. For example, maybe the person in the movie said something right before they went to the store. But the sentence itself doesn't have anything to do with this. The kid might utilize that sentence to be like, yes, I want to go to the store. But you didn't see that movie or just don't remember that it was right before the scene change. And so it doesn't make any sense to you.

Echolalia scripting is communication almost all the time. Like, I don't know, 85 percent of the time. Sometimes it's just stimming and sometimes it's just like a calming method. But most of the time we're talking because we think you want to hear us, or we think that you've asked us to talk. We're trying to answer you. So if the answer isn't working, that's more of a miscommunication than some other kind of issue. 

The last part of what I want to talk about today is, do parents have to do anything about their child scripting? And this is again from Caitlin. If you notice that your kid is repeating a lot of words and phrases, do you need to do anything about it? So what I will say (again, not a medical professional): I have two kids. One is seven. One is five. They both do this kind of repeating pretty often and so do I. So that's a personal experience. It's not really related to anything else.

Do parents have to do anything about their child's scripting? Not really. If it's interfering with your ability to communicate at all, talk to a speech therapist, talk to an OT, and see if maybe an alternative communication method might be a good fit for you and your family.

At least while your child is building skills, you might need to, as a parent, figure out how your child is using their scripts, and this can be occasionally frustrating. I'm not going to lie, because you and your kid might have different frames of reference. Have you seen every kid's movie that your child has ever sat through? Because I have not. I know that I'm supposed to, but sometimes you just can't watch another two hours of a children's movie, and I'm not going to feel guilty about that.

So anyway, if your child is pulling scripts, sometimes they're pulling it from conversations you weren't privy to or whatever. But if your child is pulling from media, which is very common, figuring out the context of what they're using in the movie can really help you figure out how they're using it. Not always, but a lot, so you might need to do some legwork to figure out where did your child pull this from? Pull this set of words from?

And what might they mean when they're using it? What might they be trying to express? Is it emotional content? Is it data? Is it some kind of logic content, like what is happening there?

I would also just want to back a little bit and say that learning those scripts is not particularly different than learning neurotypical preferences. So you have friends, I'm sure, who speak differently than you. We're all from everywhere nowadays. And you know that some people like to be spoken to in a more polite way. Some people are a little bit more casual. You know, and you might be using different sorts of voices and tones with different folks anyway.

So figuring out how your child is using scripting ,and adapting what you're doing for them is not particularly different than learning neurotypical preferences. Also, remember, your kiddo is doing so much work to try to figure out what you want as a neurotypical person (if you are neurotypical.) My autistic kiddo and I understood each other really well. My ADHD kiddo and I don't get each other at all. We have completely different brains. We have had to do so much work to understand each other, and she did just as much work as I did. So remember that your kid is working really hard and you can work a little bit too.

Another thing is, you and your child can develop scripts together. So this has happened also with me and my partner. We noticed at some point that I was using scripts in a way that wasn't getting across to him. And we did a debrief. I'm a lot older. I have more verbal skills. I can choose when I feel like talking about how I use scripts, and what I just can't handle it. So, I have a little bit more liberty there, but over time we've sort of figured out, when I say this, I'm trying to express this kind of emotion, and now it's just natural to him.

You and your kiddo can also develop scripts together so you understand what they want. And this is important when your child is overwhelmed and can't do spontaneous speech. You can cue them. So you know that I talked about this a little bit in a previous episode with my ADHD kiddo and how she gets overwhelmed, she can't decide what to eat [Ed. note - this is a blog post, not an episode.] So she and I have a couple of cue phrases that she has learned that are shortcuts. So if she's overwhelmed, I can swoop in and prompt with the specific shortcut that we've both agreed upon ahead of time and have been practicing. And it's much more easy for her to access that script than it is to spontaneously come up with some kind of answer for me.

So if you and your child can practice during calm times and understand their scripts, you will have better success prompting them to communicate when they're already overwhelmed, and also just showing them that you understand them.

Another thing I would say is that echolalia is a normal part of child development for all children, regardless of brains. Even for autistic kids and other kids with developmental disorders, it can be part of who your child is, and not really something you need to change.

If you're worried about it, I will say that it does tend to decrease as your kiddo learns other ways to communicate, and other ways to cope with overwhelming stress. Because, like I'm saying, scripting is, as a whole, a response to not having enough processing power. So the more things you can free up, think of your computer, right, the more short term memory you can free up by deleting apps you don't need, not having things run all the time, [the less they'll need to repeat].

So clear your schedule, give them downtime. Give them coping strategies when they're calm, practice them when they're calm. (You can see an autism-friendly speech language pathologist for support with this!)

The more your child can pick up on those communication methods and coping strategies and put them in short term memory, the better they'll be able to grab them when they need them and the less they'll need to grab that script instead.

So what you're trying to do is is not with the echolalia specifically. Don't try to get it to change. Try to understand it, and then try to ignore it and focus instead on what kind of coping strategies you can be working on with your kiddo, so that they don't need to grab the scripting as often.

Again, I'm not saying kids shouldn't use scripts. I am 34 and still use them. It's just gonna happen. Do I use it as often as I used to? No, because I have a lot more coping strategies now than I did. So, it really can help. And it is true that scripting can be internal to the child and difficult to translate to new people. So having other communication methods can be really helpful for everybody involved, and less stressful for your child overall.

Parents need to teach our kids expressive and receptive language skills: how to get their meaning across, and how to hear what other people are saying and communicating. There's lots of different ways to do this. It depends on your kiddo and their abilities and their needs. I would really encourage you to talk to a medical professional about what's a good fit for you. We have had great success with speech therapy and occupational therapy in our family, but it completely depends on who you are and what you need. Go talk to your community, get recommendations, and and work from there.

So I hope that helps, Caitlin! I hope that gives you some good information from the point of view of someone on the autism spectrum as to why we're repeating things all the time, and what the value is for us.

If you have any questions like Caitlin did, please email me! I would honestly love to hear your questions, comments, and input. What did I miss? 

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