Echolalia is the phenomenon exhibited by those afflicted with autism, Tourette's syndrome and other forms of developmental disabilities or psychopathological conditions that causes them to repeat the last words or syllables they hear. In some situations, it may represent meaningful attempts at speech. In others, it may be meaningless repetition.
For those dealing with autistic individuals especially, echolalia is often seen as a sign of meaningful verbal communication. However, this should be carefully scrutinized. If it can be substantially demonstrated the autistic individual is not just meaninglessly repeating words, then this may be taken as a sign of legitimate communication.
If an autistic person is asked if they want an apple. They may respond by saying, “Apple.” When dealing with individuals with normal speech patterns, this would normally be an affirmative answer. However, if the questioner then asks if the autistic person wants nothing, they may respond, “Nothing.” In such cases, it is quite easy to determine this is simply echolalia.
Echolalia comes in two different forms. One is called immediate echolalia and the other is called delayed echolalia. By far, the most common form is immediate echolalia, where the individual responds, with very little pause, to the last word or words that were said.
Delayed echolalia is just what the name would seem to suggest. Though there are no firm standards of when echolalia would move from being labeled immediate to delayed, if the echoing takes place 30 seconds or more after the words were spoken, it would likely be safe to call it delayed. In most cases, delayed echolalia can take place hours, days or months after the words were spoken. In many cases, the autistic individual may be repeating something heard from a parent, or something heard on radio or television.
It is important to not dismiss all echolalia as meaningless communication. If there is a doubt, ask for clarification. If one asks a person who exhibits echolalia if they want a hot dog or hamburger and the answer comes back hamburger, turn the question around. Ask if they would like a hamburger or hot dog. If the answer is still hamburger, that should be taken as an affirmative, meaningful answer. If however, the answer comes back hot dog, some more work may need to be done to clearly discern the preferences.
Dealing with an autistic individual or other individual exhibiting signs of echolalia can be frustrating. However, the key is to not lose patience. The afflicted person is not intentionally trying to annoy. They are simply doing what comes naturally to them.
Often, asking for affirmation long enough, can clear up any misunderstandings, but if the individual becomes upset, the prompting for information should stop. The goal is to promote substantive communication. Asking for affirmation to the point the individual gets frustrated does not encourage communication; it discourages it.
Currently, there are no cures for echolalia, though treating the underlying problem may help reduce the instances of echolalia. For example, if medication is administered to an individual with a psychopathic illness that results in echolalia, the echolalia may be one of the symptoms treated as well. In nearly all cases, echolalia is not seen as an independent mental illness but rather connected to another condition.