What is was commonly thought to be 'meaningless speech', echolalia has been found to be purposeful for those on the spectrum. Echolalia is the repetition and imitation of speech, and generally seen within the beginning stages of speech development in children. When the echoing of words, sounds, and phrases continues after the toddler age is when you might need to be concerned, and look into Autism or other neurological disorders. In the beginning stages of Olive's speech, she began imitating sounds and babble, as many children do. She began finding her voice around 3, she would act out her favorite parts of a T.V. show. A lot of this sounded scrambled due to her speech delay, that did not limit her from 'talking' up a storm. She has always had a lot to say, even when she was non-verbal. Non-verbal does not mean quiet, or 'stupid'. It in no way is a measure of the amount of intelligence one possess. I hate this misconception, it only adds to societies problem with minimizing an Autistic person's potential and abilities.
Olive's favorite show to script at the time was Mickey Mouse Club House, which then gradually turned in to the movie Frozen. She had memorized the whole scene during the song 'Let it Go', and would mirror them along with the movie. She didn't need to be watching it or listening to the song. Olive would just do this over and over through out the day. She wasn't limited to just scripting movies and shows. She would also mimic people as they spoke, particularally me. She would just repeat the last word of everything I said over and over again. As we'd engage in a back and forth conversation, it would suddenly turn into her just repeating what I was saying. Most of the time I couldn't help but laugh, she seemed to find a lot of enjoyment out of it. Sometimes we'll have conversations and later on I'll realize her responses and reactions were just her reenacting some YouTube video she's been watching. While she's responding and interacting with me, it can be some what automated. I began noticing she would ask a question, and I would respond. She would then proceed to ask the question again, and usually 5 or 6 more times. For example: "Mama can I have some water?", She would make a request and then after I respond she'd continue on repeating the same question. Sometimes she'll ask and repeat questions she already knows the answer to. She seems to find comfort in the expected response or reassurance. I've found verbally guiding her through out the day helps cut back on her need to ask the same questions, and things seem to register with her better. I do get a lot of random stares, and once had a child ask me why I always repeat myself.
The easiest way to tell if your loved one is mimicking or has echolalaic speech is by having them evaluated by a trained specialist or psychologist. It's pretty easy to spot when you ask yourself whether the speech they're using is functional or non functional. Functional speech includes a response that is in context to what is being said. Ask yourself, is this response accomplishing an overall goal in the conversation? In most of the examples above, my daughter is interacting with me, but none of what is being said is in context of our conversation. The speech isn't expressing any needs, wants, feelings, or offer a response. Therefore the speech is considered 'non functional'. Even though the speech itself is not functional, echolalic speech is meaningful for those on the spectrum. Scripting is a common way to elevate stress and organize one's self internally. For Olive specifically, I notice she enjoys scripting. She'll ask me to watch as she showcases her talents. She will also use scripting while in a time of distress, or as a defense mechanism to being over loaded and being asked too many questions. Repetitive speech can also serve as a vocal stim, bringing comfort and helping the person better self regulate. Overall, if they are not hurting themselves or anyone else, this behavior should not be a punishable act. You can attempt to redirect this behavior, or let them resume in a safe place. People are going to stare. They might even be brave enough to make a comment. You have to remember, they don't know your loved one is having a hard time or is on the spectrum. You don't need to explain yourself to anyone, but know taking the time to educate a person will go a lot further. Handle these instances respectfully. You can't change how people are going to view you and your loved one, but you overall are teaching the world how to treat your child, and your child how the world is to treat them.