On a recent trip to the grocery store (which is often a stressful experience for me), this happened:
When we got to the checkout and started unloading our things onto the conveyor belt, I noticed that we forgot to put our lemon in its own little bag. There was a moment of inward shock as I realized this and worried about what I should do.
I said: “Oh, our lemon isn’t in a bag.”
Boyfriend said: “It’s not bagged.”
We figured there wouldn’t be much point in running back for a bag, so we just put the lemon on the conveyor belt as is. And then I proceeded to repeat “it’s not bagged” softly to myself. It’s not bagged. It’s not bagged. It’s not bagged. After doing that for a bit, I felt much calmer and was actually kind of enjoying myself. Boyfriend was having fun too, and was also occasionally saying “it’s not bagged” back to me. If the cashier noticed, he didn’t let on, and he certainly didn’t treat us differently because of it.
Later, when we got home, I would sometimes just start saying “it’s not bagged!” while bouncing and flapping. It ended up being one of the better grocery trips we’d had, and neither one of us was particularly drained afterwards.
Echolalia is the verbal repetition of words or phrases.
When I say something echolalic, my mind goes into a state of pleasant blankness and focuses just on the words. I feel light, airy, and far away from my worries. The situation feels simple and factual, and I’m able to be calm.
Usually, I repeat a word or phrase I’ve just heard (or said) that I like, either because of the way it sounds or how it sums up a situation or idea. In the case of “it’s not bagged”, it was both. Repeating a simple word or phrase is reassuring and comforting. In the above example, it helped me process something unexpected (the lack of lemon bag) in an already trying situation (the sensory overload of the grocery store), and turn it into something fun.
Even now, when I think “it’s not bagged” I get that pleasant blank feeling and remember the positive experience grocery shopping. It also reminds me of the wonderful feeling of acceptance when I realized that my boyfriend really didn’t mind me echolaling in public. He actually found it endearing and fun.
For me, echolalia also often overlaps verbal stimming (which I do a lot of, like really a lot). I first heard this adorable Korean song “I love Egg” [watch the Korean version. Warning: flashing colors at the beginning of the animation] when I was about 16. In it, there’s a phrase that sounds to me like “ung pung pung” that I just love even though I don’t know what it means. Now, at 23, I’ll often say “ung pung pung” in the same cute voice as in the song when I’m happy or excited about something. Not only does it help me express the feeling, it also helps me experience the feeling. When I say it, I feel more immersed in my own happiness and excitement. And if I say it when I’m not particularly happy, I’ll actually feel a little wave of happiness.
So, in a way, both “it’s not bagged” and “ung pung pung” are about increasing comfort. The former comforted me in a stressful situation and now reminds me of that comfort, and the latter expresses and amplifies my comfort. Simply put, echolalia makes me feel better.