This post highlights that echolalia and forms of verbal stimming are meaningful methods of communication used by autistic individuals. Echolalia can communicate emotions associated with a certain sound/song/quote. Words or context from echoed dialogue can also hold relevant meanings to conversation. It is important to see echolalia as meaningful communication attempts whether we understand the meaning in the moment or not.

Echolalia misunderstood

I have a confession to make. I like to echo the sounds of the microwave. My personal interpretation goes something like “dowwwwww.” Like this droning hum. Total nonsense, but it brings me great joy.

We call this echolalia, when autistic people orally mimic something they hear, whether that’s words, songs, or nonsense sounds. Some people might mimic sirens that pass by while others might quote entire movie scripts. Echolalia is like borrowed speech vs novel/original.

Perhaps this is where the misconceptions lie – because speech isn’t “original” it therefore holds less meaning. Or we struggle to interpret alternative meanings when taking a noise/song/saying out of context. I’m writing to challenge these perceptions. Although the message or meaning of echolalic speech may be far from intuitive to a listener, it does not make it meaningless.


The common response to echolalia I see is a combination of dismissal and suppression. My parents used to tell me I talked just to hear myself speak – Translation – what’s coming out of your mouth doesn’t mean anything so please stop. One of my autistic peers growing up dubbed the majority of my speaking as “mindless chatter.” (Clever classification, I couldn’t argue.)

I wouldn’t say anything meaningful. I’d just repeat myself or someone else to excess. Over time I learned that repeating things I heard was not normal or desired. So I stopped.

By the time I suspected I could be autistic, I didn’t think I stimmed. I didn’t echo or repeat everything, make strange loud sounds, or quote entire movie scripts. Until, that is, I gave myself permission to.

While I was living with my autistic partner, we created a home environment where verbal stimming was accepted and expected. And what I discovered honestly surprised me. I gradually learned how wrong I was about my own penchant for verbal stimming – echolalia, pallalia, nonsense sounds – I did it all.

Comic – An intuitive example

The illustration above shows a snapshot of my own echolalia when I was applying to jobs following earning my SLP master’s degree. Once I got my job acceptance notice, I turned toward my partner and without thinking started singing “I Got a Golden Ticket” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

At first, my partner was confused. That’s a random song to pull from the ether at this moment. What in the world possessed her to this tune?

After a second or two, my partner was able to connect the dots and come to why this song now. “I got a golden ticket” really meant “I got the job.” The song brings the sense of being chosen for an upcoming adventure and feelings of celebration, in a similar vein to winning a lottery. My partner knew I had been interviewing for jobs, so this connection was easy to make.

It’s nice when the connections, the interpretations are easy. It’s convenient, reassuring when things are predictable. Us autistic people aren’t the only ones who like when things are predictable.

But many times, verbal stims or chants of echolalia aren’t going to make intuitive sense to you. And that’s okay, that’s expected. I’m not asking you to become expert detectives in all things movie references; it’s not a feasible goal and will just stress you out. What I’m asking instead, is that you default to echolalia and verbal stimming as holding meaning instead of getting in the way of meaningful speech.

Deeper understanding of verbal stimming and echolalia (below the iceberg)

Verbal stimming can communicate a person’s mental and emotional state, in a similar way that neurotypical people use nonverbal body language and tone as cues.

As I can struggle with naming my feelings directly, making an association with an event that evokes a similar feeling can be easier to access. I’m not stating I feel excited or curious or nervous or celebrating, I’m identifying that I feel like how I imagine getting a golden ticket would feel, like how that movie scene visually depicted that feeling.

One of the ways my brain naturally expresses how I feel is through making these connections and associations. Movies are great references because they’re visual and I think primarily in pictures. Songs can also be great references for auditory representations of emotions. My brain connects minuscule details from completely unrelated events and makes these unique associations that other brains might not.

When we understand this alternate way of perceiving the world and accept it as valid, we can begin to see past the strange and on to how amazing experiencing the world this way can be. How that detailed, pattern oriented thinking can go along with strengths in creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

Personal example: Happy expression

Let me circle back now to my echoing of the microwave. I’ve unconsciously identified this particular echo as an expression of joy. To the point where I’ve extrapolated recreating that nonsense sound “dowwwww” to any time I’m feeling happy excitement.

One would wonder, how in the world does this “dow” (rhymes with “wow”) hold any meaning? Like my parents thinking that I was only speaking to hear my own voice. “Dow” on its own is not meaningful. But if I break the context down, it begins to make sense.

As a misguided American, to make tea I fill a mug with water and heat it in the microwave. Tea is a great sensory item, it’s warm, has a light, pleasant smell, taste, gives my hands something nice to hold. Tea makes me happy, feels somehow both exciting and calming, lifting my mood and lowering my baseline anxiety. I associate hearing the microwave sounds to waiting for my tea. Therefore, echoing the microwave sounds is an expression of joy unique to me. I then apply my personal joy expression to other situations that I find fit the same feeling as anticipating my lovely tea.

It’s certainly not an intuitive connection, but it holds meaning all the same. When I am making my nonsense “dow” sounds to myself, I am expressing my happy excitement.

An even stranger confession, I repeat the nonsense phrase “bow wow” when I am distressed. And oddly enough, I have a hypothesis for this as well. It is definitely not intuitive, another unique expression to me. But just because this nonsense phrase isn’t easy to interpret, doesn’t mean it’s meaningless.

There’s a certain movie that has a scene of singing and dancing to this “Bow Wow Wow” song related to dogs that is so very cringey. I find it unsettling, difficult to watch. I think my brain, as a result, made a connection between this “bow wow” phrase and feeling unsettled. My brain doesn’t think – I feel uncomfortable or unsettled right now – instead my brain thinks, I feel like how I feel when I hear that song in that movie that bothers me.

Because these sounds aren’t conventional, I suppress them in public places like at work. I silently wait for my tea to heat in the microwave and definitely don’t randomly make these weird sounds around other people, even though they are entirely harmless. In most settings, I inhibit my natural expression of joy, and if I feel expected to show a joyful expression then I try to select a more socially acceptable one, one that is relatively palatable so I won’t disturb someone who is put off by my joy. This is an example of autistic masking. Suppressing my unusual authentic expression and adopting a presentation of myself that is less “me” but more palatable.

Applying to your practice

I dove into examples of some of my personal echolalia and its meanings in part to demonstrate how specific and individual these expressions can be. For many of your students, it is not going to be clear why they settle on certain echos or preferred sounds to imitate. With all the media out there to consume, there is no way that any of us will be familiar with all of the possible origins of verbal stimming.

The why or “origin” isn’t that important. It’s nice to know but not necessary for learning how to recognize further meanings and emotion expression that might be underlying the verbal stims.

Once we understand that verbal stimming can be and often is meaningful, we can begin to listen, observe, notice patterns of behaviors or situations that evoke certain stims. Noticing these patterns will help with attributing meaning and understanding this natural form of expression.

What you can do

  1. Establish yourself as a “safe space” – free from judgment/criticism over stimming.

We want to counter the societal pressure to mask that our students feel. To do this, we want to establish our therapy space or our presence as free from judgment over harmless autistic behavior such as stimming. We want our students to feel safe to use alternate forms of expression if they choose. Even if your student continues to mask automatically in your presence, knowing that they wouldn’t need to keep up the performance in front of you can reduce the burden of masking and help reduce negative perceptions of themselves, that their stimming is “too weird.”

Since I work with older students, I’ve had students apologize to me for stimming. Some of your autistic students can’t mask, so having a place where they do not need to perform can be comforting and validating. Explicitly make known that you have no desire to suppress your students’ verbal stimming as long as it is not harming anyone.

2. Normalize stimming. Point out your own instances of stimming.

Yes, I’m telling you that you stim too. Everyone stims in their own way. You might not verbally stim, but you might fidget, need something to do with your hands, tap your foot or bounce your leg, hum or speak in a sing-song voice sometimes (hey look verbal stimming!). Point out the natural ways you stim to model these behaviors as expected and okay. Normalize stimming as a natural form of expression. You can also normalize associations between sounds or visuals and emotion expression, pointing out how music or videos can make us feel a certain way.

  • Be curious. Look out for patterns in your autistic students’ echolalia or verbal stims.

Notice if you can identify patterns in your autistic students’ echolalia, verbal stims, or other stimming in general. Consider possible associations you can make with echolalia and certain emotions or behaviors. Maybe a student makes a particular sound around certain adults or peers, or in certain environments or times of day. Pointing out when you recognize those patterns can help your autistic students feel seen and understood.

You can also try asking your student if they know where a certain sound or echo is from, whether it’s from a video game or movie. Autistic kids love to talk about their favorite things so if they are aware and able to communicate that connection, I’m sure they will, happily. Being curious, taking an interest in your student’s interests can help build or strengthen your relationship with that student.

Even if you don’t understand a students’ stimming, trying to understand is enough and more than a lot of people will engage in. When you make an effort to understand what your student is communicating, especially if no one else does, they will notice. When you show that you care about your students, they will notice.

Let me know if you found value from sharing this perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *