Strategies to Address Repeated Verbal Phrases

  • Situation

    I am a family member of a teenage girl with autism. She regularly walks around repeating the same phrases over and over again, much to the dismay of her peers and family members. Repeating it back to her or saying we heard her does not stop it. How do we reduce this? Is this a form of echolalia? Ex: Her cousin is coming to pick her up for an appointment. “I have an appointment at 10:00, my cousin is coming at 10:00 to pick me up, at 10:00 we are leaving for the appointment…” Help!

  • Summary

    There may be a few reasons why your child repeats verbal phrases: to reduce anxiety, and possibly to gain attention and these reasons may overlap at times.

    It should also be noted at times the reasons may overlap.

    If there is to be a change or event occurring in your child’s day that is different than his/her typical routine, prepare a schedule (visual or written). Setting expectations and helping your child understand what will occur may help reduce anxiety. If your child begins the repetitive behavior, quietly and without addressing the repetition, point to the schedule for the day.

    You may also find it helpful to use interruption and redirection as a strategy to address the repeated verbal phrase behavior. Ask your child a structured choice question to interrupt the repetitive phrase. Questions such as: “What would you like to do now while we wait, play a game on your iPad or read a story?” can be helpful to redirect your child’s attention and disrupt the repetitive behavior.

    Do not under any of these strategies draw attention to the repetitive phrase behavior. It is possible that if you provide attention to this behavior, your child may want to continue this in the future. Strategies in this answer include use of visual schedules to reduce anxiety and use of interruption and redirection with structured questions.

  • Definition

    A visual schedule is a word, picture, or object sequencing of events. A visual schedule can give a sense of time and when an activity will end. Knowing what and when things happen can prevent many behavioral issues.  Interruption and redirection is a term typically used to decrease stereotypic behaviors and redirect the behaviors to a more appropriate, alternative behavior.  Typically a physical or verbal blocking is used block a person from engaging in the repetitive behavior.  In this case use of a structured verbal choice question will be utilized.  In addition, attention will be provided only when the child is engaged in appropriate replacement behaviors, without attention provided to the repetitive behavior.   A structured choice question is an intervention that gives a student a sense of control over a situation by providing choices. Structured choice interventions are used to prevent, de-escalate or redirect interfering behaviors.    

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10, 11-13, 14-17, 18+
    • Planning Effort: Low
    • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Pre-requisites

    Child, teenager or adult has the ability to understand verbal questions and interpret pictures or words on a visual schedule

  • Process

    1. If a change or event is to occur that is different than the student’s typical routine prepare a visual written or pictorial schedule.  When children or adults know what to expect anxiety can be decreased and understanding of the day increases.  Such a tool often prevents behaviors of concern.

    2. If the repetitive behavior occurs, quietly gesture to the schedule for the day.

    3. If the behavior continues, in this case a verbalization of a statement in a repetitive fashion, interrupt with a 2 part question either on a topic of high interest, or related to a task/activity the child can engage in or with.  For example state:  “What computer games do you think your cousin will like, __________ or ___________?”  “What should we have for dinner tonight?  Chicken or pasta?”  If she answers continue with more questions until she is engaged with a conversation off the repetitive behavior.  You can also ask questions regarding an activity she is allowed to engage with such as “What would you like to do now while we wait, paint or play a computer game?”  Again, continue with questions until she is appropriately engaged.

    4. It is important NOT to bring attention to the repetitive verbal behavior.  It is possible that once attention is provided, the student will want to continue the behavior.

    5. When peers are involved utilize the same process and in addition, redirect the peers to activities or their work with a calm manner and no talk of the behavior.  If an adult does not attend and reinforces other behaviors by all children, they will quickly lose interest in the interfering behavior.

  • Documents and Related Resources

    Repetitive Behaviors- Detection & Intervention (Related answer on this site)


    Replacement Behavior Tools (Related answer on this site)


    Interrupt and Redirect For Toddler Throwing (Related answer on this site)


    Frame it Positively (Related answer on this site)

    This resource was authored by Watson Institute Special Education Consultant, Lisa Plastino, M.Ed.

    If you have questions or concerns about the Watson Institute’s use of this information, please contact us.