According to Skinner, an echoic occurs when a verbal response has point-to-point correspondence to its preceding verbal stimulus. It is echoing what is heard or verbal imitation.
The ability to echo the words of others is important in early language acquisition. The echoic behavior is also commonly observed in typically developing toddlers around 2 years of age when they begin learning to talk. Some people call this phenomenon "echolalia," referring to direct repetitions of vocalizations or words made by others.
Echolalia is also one of the common symptoms for some children with autism spectrum disorders. They have a tendency to repeat whatever is heard under various conditions. The causes of echolalia can be of multiple reasons, depending on the circumstances it occurs. For example, a child may echo a phrase or a sentence in an interactive conversation with others (e.g., How are you?) or following a direction (e.g., your turn). S/he may use echolalia to request reinforcers or to obtain attention from others. If the echolalia does not function as a form of communication, the cause may be assumed as automatic reinforcement.
Echolalia can be a problem if it occurs frequently in a non-communicative manner and impedes social interactions with others for children with autism. To teach socially appropriate communications, behavior analysts have use "echolalia" as a valuable instructional tool to achieve this goal. That is, echolalia is regarded as a strength rather a deficit.
Using echoics as verbal prompts has shown to be effective in teaching functional communications for children with autism. What we do is to model correct verbal responses for children to directly imitate these responses, and the resulting consequence are provided immediately and contingently upon their correct verbal responses. In this way, the originally non-communicative echolalia is gradually corrected though the instruction.
Take an example of a child learning to request for cookies. When asked "What do you want?" the child simply repeats the sentence and grabs the cookie. Instead, we just hold up a cookie and say, "I want a cookie." Once the child repeats, "I want a cookie," we give him/her a cookie immediately. Next time when the child wants a cookie, s/he has learned to say, "I want a cookie."