During evaluation interviews, parents often express concern while explaining how their child "copies a question" rather than answering it, or repeats what was said more often than responding to it. This mimicry of words is called echolalia. It is a common strategy for children with autism and can be used throughout adulthood at times.
Echolalia comes in 2 forms, immediate or delayed. I find many of my children will "delay echo" scripts from their favorite cartoons and movies while we are playing or in an attempt to self-soothe during high stress times. It can be used as both interactive or non-interactive; with (mitigated) or without (unmitigated) word substitutions. For example, when you ask a child "Do you want the bubbles?" and he responds with "You want bubbles? Yes" this is interactive, immediate and mitigated echolalia.
Echolalia serves variety of speech functions. It is not simply meaningless repetition! Echolalia functions as:
1) Allowing for Processing Time
2) Conversational Turn Taking
3) Self Soothing
4) Emotional Expression
6) Staying Focused
If your child uses echolalia to communicate, with some prompting, more spontaneous and functional speech is possible. A speech-language pathologist can help guide and model the appropriate ways to shape your child's language. Most importantly, honor echolalia as communication. Look at the context and try to figure out what your child is attempting to communicate through their echo. Do they appear disorganized? Is this an attempt to soothe or stay focused? Are the reaching and using an echo to request? Are they engaged with you but possibly unsure how to respond to your question?
In the beginning, we model speech for our children who use echolalia by presenting it the way we want them to say it. For example, if they are reaching for a cookie, instead of asking, "Do you want a cookie?" we could say "I want a cookie." or "I need help." This will give them the words that fit with the idea in their mind. Try to use a variety of phrases and prompts to encourage flexibility and prevent memorized, rote phrases such as "I want ____" If your child appears to be using echolalia to self soothe or express an emotion, label and model this by saying "Uh! I can't reach! So frustrated!" Exaggerated, slow but animated speech will help convey meaning while giving your child time to hear the words, process and repeat. Keep in mind the number of words you are modeling as well. A general rule of thumb is to only model 1 extra word onto what your child is already able to spontaneously say.
Again, an SLP will guide you through the nuances, joys and frustrations of echolalia. It's important to include one on your child's team, if you haven't already. We used to believe that echolalia was meaningless, but our children have proved us wrong so it's time we listen.