Tips and Strategies for Echolalia as Communicative Intent

  • Situation

    I am a student working with a child with classic autism. This child is a seven year old male who is mostly nonverbal. His family and therapists are currently exploring whether PECS or ASL will be most functional for this child to develop language. However, the mother expressed that he does use echolalia occasionally, and often times with communicative attempt. For example, he repeats the phrase “only at Walmart” when he wants to go to Walmart. What are some strategies I can share with this family  for expanding or shaping these behaviors into purposeful communication?

  • Summary

    Researchers have determined that echolalia can indeed have communicative intent and research on specific strategies has been conducted since the early 1970’s with many structured training techniques available.  In addition, use of systems as The Picture Exchange System (PECS) and American Sign Language (ASL)  provide the child with an immediate conduit for purposeful communication.  This child appears to have a repertoire of motivational activities/items which is a powerful tool for facilitating and expanding communication. For purposes of this format, a few simple points are presented with the recommendation for interventionists to further study these.   Researchers and authors include Skinner, Prizant, Schreibman & Carr, McMorrow & Foxx, Carbone, and Sundberg.  The following tips include strategies and points to consider centering on this child’s use of echolalia.  In addition, other ‘Answers’ on this site offer more detailed examples of communication strategies.  See Resources for links.

  • Definition

    Echolalia may occur in response to distress, to support concentration, for enjoyment, or as communicative intent.  This brief description offers tips and sample strategies located in the literature to shape echolalia into meaningful communication.  The process includes tips and strategies that are not presented in any set sequence.  Note: because the child demonstrates an understanding of motivational items/activities access the Answer:  Teaching Requesting – Early Mand Training on this site.

  • Quick Facts

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

    The ability of the interventionist to identify the function of echolalia as communicative intent

  • Process

    • Complete a comprehensive language assessment in order to determine the child’s communicative abilities and weaknesses.(i.e., Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program – VB-MAPP, The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills- The ABLLS, etc.)

    • Make an assessment based decision when determining functional system of communication for the child.

    The next points (not in any order); will focus shaping communication per the child’s use of echolalia. It is important to keep in mind the developmental level of the child prior to selecting strategies to use.

    • Avoid responding with sentences that will result in echolalia.  Instead of asking a child “Do you want juice?” choose a sentence that produces a correct echolalic response as “I’m thirsty” (while pouring juice)
    • Use a carrier phrase softly spoken while modeling the correct response:  “You say, (quietly spoken), ‘ want car.’   “  Note this child is typically non-verbal   or uses a few words per phrase.  Begin matching your length of utterance with his/her’s and expand later.
    • Teach “I don’t know” to sets of questions the child does not know the answers to.  Research conducted in 1978 (Schreibman & Carr) indicated once the child learned to say ‘I don’t know’ to one question he/she generalized to other questions they did not know but at the same time the child continued to appropriately answer questions they did know.
    • Teach the correct response to questions:  “What is a rose? – flower” then reinforce the echo and fade the prompt
    • Use a ‘starter sentence’ such as “I want some _____.” And see if the child will fill in the blank (Show a visual of juice)
    • Provide another person as a model.  Select questions that may be commonly asked.  When the ‘model’ person provides the correct response provide feedback and reinforcement.  Then look at the child and ask the same questions providing feedback and reinforcement for correct responses.  Continue to criterion level then ask questions without the model.  Fade reinforcers and use other people to ask the questions for generalization
    • Respond to Communicative Intent – example:  Adult:  “Do you want some water?”  Child:  “Do you want some water?” (reaching for water)  Adult:  “Want water. “(Child’s name) want water.”– increasing demands should be made for a child’s repetition of reduced model utterances. (Prizant)

    Teaching Requesting – Early Mand Training is another answer on this site and should be explored.


    In addition, use of naturalistic strategies to promote initiations can support such systems. (see resources).

  • Documents and Related Resources

    VB-MAPP (Verbal Behavior – Milestones Assessment and Placement Program resource site)


    The ABLLS  (The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills resource site)


    Teach Me Language (Freeman) (Resource website)


    Teaching Children with Autism (Quill) (Resource website)


    SCERTS – Social Communication Emotional Regulation Transactional Support (Prizant) (Resource website)


    Naturalistic Interventions (PDF)


    Picture Exchange Communication System (informational website)


    Echolalia – Repetitive Speech (Website – fact sheet)


    Choice Boards (Related answer on this site)


    Teaching Requesting – Early Mand Training (Related answer on this site)


    Visible but Unreachable (Related answer on this site)


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