Repeat After Me? Both Children With and Without Autism Commonly Align Their Language With That of Their Caregivers

Riccardo Fusaroli*, Ethan Weed, Roberta Rocca, Deborah Fein, Letitia Naigles

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Linguistic repetitions in children are conceptualized as negative in children with autism - echolalia, without communicative purpose - and positive in typically developing (TD) children - linguistic alignment involved in shared engagement, common ground and language acquisition. To investigate this apparent contradiction we analyzed spontaneous speech in 67 parent-child dyads from a longitudinal corpus (30 minutes of play activities at 6 visits over 2 years). We included 32 children with autism and 35 linguistically matched TD children (mean age at recruitment 32.76 and 20.27 months). We found a small number of exact repetitions in both groups (roughly 1% of utterances across visits), which increased over time in children with autism and decreased in the TD group. Partial repetitions were much more frequent: children reused caregivers' words at high rates regardless of diagnostic group (24% of utterances at first visit), and this increased in frequency (but not level) over time, faster for TD children (at final visit: 33% for autism, 40% for TD). The same happened for partial repetition of syntax and semantic alignment. However, chance alignment (as measured by surrogate pairs) also increased and findings for developmental changes were reliable only for syntactic and semantic alignment. Children with richer linguistic abilities also displayed a higher tendency to partially re-use their caregivers' language (alignment rates and semantic alignment). This highlights that all children commonly re-used the words, syntax, and topics of their caregivers, albeit with some quantitative differences, and that most repetition was at least potentially productive, with repeated language being re-contextualized and integrated with non-repeated language. The salience of echolalia in ASD might be partially explained by slight differences in frequency, amplified by lower semantic alignment, persistence over time, and expectations of echolalia. More in-depth qualitative and quantitative analyses of how repetitions are used and received in context are needed.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13369
JournalCognitive Science
Pages (from-to)e13369
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023


  • Autism
  • Echolalia
  • Individual differences
  • Language development
  • Linguistic alignment
  • Social interaction
  • Caregivers
  • Autistic Disorder/diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Language Development
  • Speech
  • Echolalia/diagnosis


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