What are Echolalia and Autistic Scripting?

Does your child repeat back words to you, often? Are they repeating words and phrases over and over? Or maybe reciting movie and TV lines? Have you heard of echolalia or scripting? It’s a common autistic behavior, though not everyone who does it is autistic.

While beliefs and perceptions about autism are changing, there is still progress to be made. One area that could use more progress is understanding the behaviors that accompany autism and the reasons behind those behaviors.

Echolalia and Scripting

Many who are unfamiliar with the neurodivergent world find behaviors like echolalia and scripting to be annoying. I have seen IEP teams treat them as behaviors on an autism IEP. But they serve a function to the autistic person. Too many autistic people have been punished unnecessarily for these ‘annoying’ behaviors.

Some children will script in the form of air writing or sky writing.
Some children will script verbally while others may do imaginary skywriting.

The fact is, they are more misunderstood than annoying.

Rather than lumping them all together and deeming them undesirable, knowing the reasons why fosters understanding.

One client that I had many years ago did imaginary skywriting as his method of scripting. He often mumbled or whispered as he did this.

Teachers, aides, and other school personnel tried unsuccessfully to stop this behavior. This is because they misunderstood the behavior. They saw it as an annoying quirk that distracted other students. In reality, it was his form of communication.

Finally, the family’s private OT and myself got involved, and we got everyone to realize that this was a necessary outlet for this child.

Scripting and Echolalia are terms used to describe when a child is repeating common phrases, or parts of favorite shows, songs, or movies. Or, they may be repeating what people around them have said–whether it was 30 seconds ago or 30 days ago, depending on the situation.

Mistakenly, these communication patterns are thought to lack communicative function or meaning.

However, scripting and echolalia are often characteristic of gestalt language learners and are very common forms of communication when children are learning how to communicate. Both are age-appropriate behaviors up until about preschool age.

Echolalia and scripting are often associated with autistics, but the behavior is not limited to autistics. A child may do one, the other, or both. Read on to learn more about scripting and echolalia.

What is echolalia?

Echolalia is found annoying by some, and I believe it goes back to our own childhood experiences. Do you remember when you were little, and a sibling or friend was trying to annoy you? And to annoy you, they would just repeat every single thing that you said?

And it would eventually end up in a game of “I know you are, but what am I?”

To the uninformed, it can appear that a person who is doing echolalia speech is doing just that. Repeating everything you just said.

A person can even repeat what they just said, rather than what someone else just said. That is called palilalia.

Echolalia is age-appropriate behavior for beginning talkers.

Echolalia is the literal and rote repetition of the speech of others. Chances are, your babies and toddlers mimicked you in short bursts. Even if their words weren’t 100% accurate, the pitch and cadence were likely the same.

Children may also mimic family pets in an echolalic fashion until they have the skill set to talk.

In young or typically developing children, echolalia presents as imitation. This is why an uninformed person may see it as mocking or as an annoyance. It is a part of typical language development from ages 18 months to 30 months of age for most development calendars.

Developmental echolalia usually fades by age 3 as a child learns to string words and phrases together on their own to communicate. However, if a child continues repeating words and phrases after the toddler years, it could signify a developmental disability.

If you have concerns or if your child is receiving 0-3 services, ask your child’s team.

Echolalia is often associated with autistic children. However, echolalia may be present in the language of children who do not have this diagnosis. Echolalia is not in the DSM.

You may hear it referred to as parroting, echoing, mimicking, and repeating verbatim. A person repeating speech may imitate a person, a TV, a radio, or another medium. It does not have to be a live person present to be considered echolalia.

It is not typically associated with ADHD. Some other diagnoses that are associated with echolalia are OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, intellectual disability, and congenital blindness.

As language skills in children improve, echolalia decreases, across all levels of development. This is for both autistic and non-learning-disabled children.

Function of Echolalia

“Every behavior tells you something. What is the child trying to tell you?” is a phrase that I have repeated thousands of times.

And echolalia is no different. Every behavior has a function. All the functions of echolalia are not entirely understood.

We know that communication reduces frustration, and gives a sense of self, personality, and confidence. Echolalia is a form of communication.

Echolalia serves a variety of purposes, both communicative and non-communicative. 

  • process information
  • call out for attention
  • affirm what they’ve heard
  • make a request
  • provide information
  • label something
  • a form of protest
  • relate information
  • complete verbal routines
  • give directives
  • calming or self-soothing technique
  • may indicate a moment or memory of particular importance to a child

Echolalia also aids the person in self-regulation.

It is important to note, that it is very rare that a child speaking in echolalia is doing it with the intent of annoying others.

Overall, I’m not a huge fan of Rain Man and the stereotypes it perpetuated.

But, at several points throughout the movie, Rain Man is seen rocking and repeating the same phrase(s) over and over in an effort to self-soothe. He repeated phrases about Judge Wapner and Kmart, but are examples of echolalia.

Echolalia serves a function for the child.

3 Types of Echolalia

There are three types of echolalia.

  • Immediate Echolalia: This type of echolalia immediately follows another person’s speech.
  • Delayed Echolalia: This type of echolalia occurs later, or is delayed. This could be minutes or even days after the original interaction. Delayed echolalia is often described as β€˜scripting’. More on scripting will be discussed below.
  • Mitigated Echolalia: Mitigated echolalia occurs when the child makes a change in wording or intonation made by the original speaker. As the child’s receptive language skills improve, an increase in mitigated echolalia may be observed.

Is Echolalia always Autism?

When a child is exhibiting echolalia and scripting speech patterns, other indicators of autism should be pursued if the child is not already diagnosed.

But, just like not all hand flapping is autism, not all echolalia or scripting is either.

Hyperfixation or being hyperfixated on something, is a behavior associated with autism. It can overlap with echolalia and/or scripting.

Scripting

Scripting can be a form of echolalia. But not all scripting is echolalia. And not all children who do echolalia do scripting.

It is called scripting because most often, the person recites a TV show or movie. Or, a section of a memorable TV show.

Scripting is usually a verbal activity, though some individuals may finger-write either on a desk or table or in the sky. This is usually accompanied by some verbal activity.

Like echolalia, scripting is rarely if ever done with the intent of annoying or distracting others. Yet, too often it is treated as such.

Function of Scripting

Scripting has functions, just like echolalia. A person may script to mask their anxiety or lack of a skill set. They may do it because it’s their way of interacting socially.

Scripting may be a self-stimulatory or “stimming” behavior. It may also be their form of communication with others.

And, the immediate function of the person’s scripting is fluid, may overlap and change over time, and is situational.

Can you stop echolalia and scripting?

I get this question a lot from parents. And it’s kind of a loaded question.

Yes, you can stop these behaviors. But next, I usually hear, “great! how?”

If you approach echolalia and scripting from a strictly behavioral approach of reward and punishment, you’re not likely to be successful. And you will likely damage the relationship with that child and perhaps damage their psyche.

Because you’re essentially punishing someone because they lack a skill. Not really fair, is it?

As stated above, both echolalia and scripting serve a function.

If the echolalia or scripting behavior is socially ostracizing or is having a type of negative impact on the child, then you must improve the skill set of the appropriate behavior desired.

I could go on a rant about teaching the rest of the community to be accepting and understanding. And, to not ostracize the child just because they are exhibiting a behavior that is unfamiliar to you. In the moment, that’s not always possible or realistic. It should remain the long-term goal of all of us–to accept others who are different from us. But I digress.

To fade the echolalia or scripting behaviors, you must know the function behind it. And help your child achieve the lacking skill sets.

Definition of Gestalt

A gestalt is a psychology term meaning: “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.”

Gestalt principles are the different ways individuals group stimuli together in order to make a whole that makes sense to them.

Gestalt Language Processing

I’m getting pretty deep into the topics here. But, if your child is exhibiting the things I talked about above, it’s important that you begin to understand how all these moving parts fit together.

And one of these parts is Gestalt Language Processing (GLP). Which is how many autistic children learn language.

Most of us start with the alphabet and grow our vocabulary from there. Gestalt Language Processors learn their language in whole chunks, not parts of a whole that are strung together.

For example, I might say “I’m hungry.” My brain recognizes the various components. And those would be I and am, put together as I’m. And hungry. Even though I said one short phrase, I can back it up and break it down.

A Gestalt Language Processor does not do this. They see “I’m hungry” as the entity.

GLP is a normal part of language development. All children have some gestalts, even if they mostly start speaking word-by-word. For example, most children process “you’re welcome” as a gestalt. They aren’t thinking about putting together the meaning “you” “are” and “welcome” β€” they are only seeing the whole phrase.

Before developing an understanding of GLP, adults discourage children from scripting. These scripts are part of language acquisition.

Echolalia and your IEP

Ok, for starters, if you’re reading this and thinking “Omigosh! This is my child!” you need to make sure that these language deficits are listed in IEP present levels. This may necessitate requesting IEP evaluations. Specifically, you want to tell the team what you are seeing and at the very least, have the SLP do an evaluation.

Also, I always recommend to my families that they view echolalia or scripting as an IEP child’s strength. You can do this while acknowledging that the child needs to develop speech skills. The two are not mutually exclusive.

You can use the existing skill set as a strength while striving to improve skill sets.

And it is a skill! Both are a form of communication, which is a starting block.

I also tell all my families to resist putting echolalia or scripting behavior in any behavior plan. You cannot reward and punish a skill set into a child.

Taking this approach, rather than trying to teach the child new skills, will not be successful and may harm the child. Imagine that you only had one form of verbal communication–and now you’re being punished for it!

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