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Should Echolalia Be Considered A Phonic Stereotypy? A Narrative Review

Jacopo Pruccoli, Chiara Spadoni, Alex Orsenigo, Antonia Parmeggiani

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) defines echolalia as a pathological, parrotlike, and apparently senseless repetition (echoing) of a word or phrase just uttered by another person and classifies this condition among the “restrictive and repetitive behaviours” of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The authors reviewed the existing literature on echolalia and its role in the development of children with ASD. Current conceptualizations include echolalia among repetitive behaviors and stereotypies and thus interpret this symptom as lacking any communicative significance, with negative effects on learning and sensory processing. Echoic behaviors, however, have been described in neurotypical infants and children as having a substantial effect on the consequent development of language and communication. Relevant research has documented a functional role of echolalia in ASD children as well since it facilitates the acquisition of verbal competencies and affords a higher degree of semantic generalization. This developmental function could be restricted to specific contexts. Considering echolalia as stereotypy and treating it as a disturbing symptom could impair the development of ASD-specific learning and communication processes. In light of this evidence, the authors propose a different conceptualization of echolalia and suggest that this symptom be considered among atypical communication patterns in children with ASD, with implications for treatment and prognosis.