When I was diagnosed with autism in 2017, I didn’t think I had “echolalia” as a trait at all. The diagnostician remarked on my “formal language” and I was a little offended because I’ve often been told I speak oddly, grammatically correctly at all times. I don’t have a “casual” mode of speaking. I speak like I’m lecturing in front of a PhD class all the time. It’s only been over the last few years that I’ve noticed it popping up now and again, and then I can see how it was there during my childhood, as well. Because I was highly verbal, I think people didn’t notice it or chalked it up to me being “smart” and “weird.” Sound familiar?
As a child, I read a lot of books. Many of the books were above my head. This was partly because my mother had a limit on the number of books we could check out, so that meant when I finished my books I had to read my older siblings’ choices if I got bored (I got bored a lot). It was also partly because I enjoyed reading above all things. I wasn’t comfortable in my body and was extremely clumsy, so I didn’t enjoy sports. I focused all my energy on books because I was good at reading. I was in the all the highest reading classes.
Because of all this reading, I had an extremely advanced vocabulary, which I mostly gained by reading books that were intended for older audiences. Back in the day, there wasn’t any easy way to ask about the meaning of the big vocabulary words, so I learned to guess at the meaning in context. And sometimes . . . I didn’t do very well at guessing the meaning in context. That is, I figured out how to use the word before I really understood what it meant.
I read a lot of historical books (including but not limited to the Bible) and learned to use words like “ye” and “yeoman” and generally had a list of bizarre words that made perfect sense to me because I read them in a book. I didn’t notice that the words made no sense to anyone in regular conversation because I didn’t understand social rules and I didn’t tend to mimic other kids my age. I’d used book words a lot and noticed people laughed at me. I remember sometimes quoting entire passages from books. No one seemed to notice that this was odd.
It happened with jokes as a particular category because I didn’t understand jokes. I would remember jokes that I’d heard other people say and then repeat them without any context, hoping to get the laugh. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t, but I look back now and suspect that I wasn’t being laughed with, but laughed at.
Then there were the sexual phrases and words I heard used in my teen years that I didn’t understand. No one had explained sex to me clearly enough that I grasped it until I was much older than normal, but even if they had, I might not have been able to figure out the veiled language around sexual acts. So I repeated certain phrases because I saw they got a reaction. Sometimes, it felt like they came out of my mouth without me intending to use them. It was like I’d pushed the “attention” button in my brain, and fowl language spewed out. But it was said so innocently that I didn’t usually get in trouble.
So now, post diagnosis, I find weird moments of echolalia and I know what to call it now. I’ll hear a phrase I like on a television show and start repeating it. I like the feel of new words in my mouth and my brain likes to repeat things. Sometimes I find my fingers writing the word out in the air or just in my mind. This is most noticeable when it’s a strange phrase, but that’s not the only time it happens. Now that I’m aware of it, it’s sometimes disturbing how often it happens.
I poke around in my brain sometimes to try to figure out why language works this way for me. I suspect that it’s not as intuitive for me as it is for a neurotypical person. I imagine I started repeating the phrases of adults and older children as an infant and I just kept doing it until I was able to parse them into separate pieces.