Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | June 29, 2012

My Hands are Echolalic

Echolalic (adj.) from echolalia (n.) the repetition of words or phrases uttered by others. Often mechanical or nonsensical. Can be a sign of Autism.


My hands are echolalic. I literally have “loud hands”. Every time I hear or think something, my hands repeat it. Sometimes they repeat it by tapping out the pattern of the words. I move my fingers and tap them as the words come. Sometimes my fingers move to show my thoughts. My hands tap to organize my thoughts. Sometimes they tap my leg, sometimes my hip or my knee. Sometimes my fingers tap my palm or each other. It’s my way of processing language.

When I was young, I constantly repeated things I heard. I used snippets of books that I’d read in conversation, and repeated verbatim what was said to me. I often used “big words” that everyone was shocked that I knew. My mother was always impressed with my vocabulary, but not with the repetition part. I learned to silence myself and use only my lips to repeat the words and process what was said. But even that is not acceptable, so it moved to my hands and my body. It’s how I process language. The tapping, flapping, rocking motion in conversations is how I am able to deal with the verbal input and how I am able to plan what I am going to say in reply.

I know American Sign Language. Not a lot, but enough to get by. While I know numerous actual signs, I am constantly finger-spelling, regardless of “appropriate usage”. I learned the ASL alphabet when I was 6 years old in kindergarten, and I’ve been using it ever since. If you look at me, you’ll see my hands are constantly in motion. Spelling. Spelling words that I’ve heard in the conversation. Spelling words that I’m thinking. Spelling out my response, or just repeating words over and over and over. Sometimes I can control what word or words I’m spelling. Sometimes it’s subconscious. But you can bet that whatever you just said to me, I’ll be spelling out the keywords with my hands, right by my sides, using the repetition and the motion to figure out what to say and why. Sometimes its just one word, over and over. Sometimes it’s a whole sentence. Sometimes its numbers, as I count my steps or breaths or passing seconds.

When I was growing up this motion wasn’t acceptable. My mother hated that I was spelling. She hated the tapping and the repetition. If my hands so much as twitched when she was talking ot me, she would grab them and force them still and by my sides. She didn’t have the vocabulary of “quiet hands” but that sure was the message. Don’t move. Don’t do anything with your body when you’re listening. LOOK ME IN THE EYE SO I KNOW YOU ARE LISTENING. Nod your head, so I know you understand. Do NOT MOVE YOUR HANDS. I learned to hide it. Hands in pockets, stare at the forehead, bite the inside of my cheek or my tongue. Let my brain repeat words consciously, instead of my hands. Miss most of the conversation because I’m forcing my hands still into tiny balls so that hey can’t move. But my best communication comes when can release those controls. Let my body move the way it needs to. And process language with my hands.

And so if you ever want to know what I’m thinking, just take a look at my hands. Down by my side, is a window into my brain, if only you know how to read it. Because my hands are echolalic.


Back in January some awesome people started the Loud Hands Project. I actually had the idea for this post back when that started, but I just haven’t been able to develop it well. I’m not sure this is even quite finished, but I just wanted to put the idea out there.

If you enjoyed this post, please also read “WORDS”, another post about how communication works (or doesn’t work) for me.



  1. Hi E, I just love the image of you spelling with your hands all the time. I would love to see that in person. It sounds so right to me — in equal proportion to your mother’s cruel reaction. My parents are long dead and it drives some people crazy when I say things like, “I’m glad they’re dead. I’m glad they never met Nic and Emma and had a crack at killing their souls like they did with me.” I know you’ve found enough compassion in your heart to be forgiving and feel some love, which is wonderful and noble. I have gotten to that place too in many ways, though I will never say they were good parents, and I will never pretend they weren’t horrifically cruel. But as I said, I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Lucky me.


  2. I have a friend who gets frustrated with her son constantly moving his hands and have thought in the past, “What’s the big deal?” Reading this makes me realize I need to actually have a conversation with her about it.

    Tangentially, I sometimes hear people talking and imagine my hands typing out the words. I don’t actually move my hands, but I feel like I am in my mind. Unfortunately, it can distract me from really listening to what is being said, so I try to stop it just because of that.

    • I have done this all my life since I learned how to type! Even my own thoughts are silently typed out. It makes going to sleep difficult. My husband would say “please stop typing on the blanket!” I never knew it might b a sign of autism.

  3. I learned to silence the hands; quite a shame it is to be forced to abandon effective communication. Now I scribble, take notes in my own form of shorthand which I can recall the conversations verbatim. Drawings I do are the conversations and thoughts I have of what’s said.

  4. Since my son was diagnosed, I’m wondering if I’m on the spectrum, and this rings a bell. My grade 7 teacher got frustrated with my handwriting and spelling, and had me learn to type. Ever since, I type out most of what I hear -lectures, radio if I’m sitting and listening, conversations. Even lyrics sometimes. I drives my husband nuts if I’m touching him. I have to be careful, though or I get caught up in typing everything and get behind on what is being said. I need to give myself permission to “break the rules” and type only keywords if the speaker is fast.

  5. I think you’re me. I even do this in my sleep according to my husband, spelling out what my brain is showing me as though I’m tapping away at the keyboard!

    I have always “talked with my hands”. Most people believe that, as a performer (I used to be a singer until genetics caught up with me and teeth had to be yanked), it’s just because I’m very verbose and expressive, but it’s my way of processing language too. If my hands won’t do, I’ll incline my head quite violently, put emphasis on words that really don’t need emphasising and will even jog my leg in time with speech when watching TV!

  6. Love this post- my hands are much more expressive than my mouth! I sign all the time, even talking to myself I do in sign LOL. It is a gift.

  7. Reblogged this on meandmyrandombrain and commented:
    I didn’t get a chance to write today, but I so loved this post I wanted to share it with everyone. If you know me, chances are you have seen me fingerspelling at my side, under my chair or even when I cannot find the right spoken word. I so enjoyed reading that I am not alone I had to share with everyone.

    • Aww, thanks for the reblog! It’s great to know someone else does this too! 🙂

  8. Hi, E. I just read this from Orangealien’s re-blog. Its fascinating. I have 2 sons on the spectrum. I keep reading little signs that I might be there too, only just though. I also type inside my mind when thinking hard, like in meetings with schools. Or if I hear a word, which, fro some reason hits the spot, I type it into my memory. My eldest son is quite flappy when talking! He doesn’t know finger spelling, but I think there may be patterns there of his own doing. I shall have to watch carefully. It Seems like its a unlocking the word. He plays online games using a headset and he is never still, his legs and arms are talking away! His first communication was Makoton but he can’t even recall doing it. Thanks, Orangealien for letting me see this, a great re-blog choice, very enlightening, thanks again E.

    • Thanks Kelly 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the comment! Comments always make me happy.

  9. I find that this constant spelling I am doing is keeping me awake at night, and can be distracting when doing my daily routine, it usually happens when I am listening to people, tv or radio. I am getting very frustrated with it. I don’t find any comfort in doing this.

    • It is my coping mechanism – what works for me may not work for others. 🙂

  10. I love that you were able to trace back the origin of your echolailic hands. It’s amazing the adaptations we develop as kids in response to restrictions parents and teachers impose on us. I learned over the years to quiet my body and I’m slowly undoing that, giving myself permission to use movement as a comforting outlet. It’s making me appear “more autistic” but it feels like it’s also making me more myself which is a good feeling. 🙂

  11. I have to post here, because i havent found anyone else that does this! I am 22 years old, and i have tourettes, and i have developed a new form of coprilalia like this. Within the last two years i have been learning sign because my girlfriend is hard of hearing so it makes it easier to communicate. I do the EXACT same thing EXACTLY how you explain it, i spell out things all the time… to the point where now my hands are cramping. Ive only been doing this for a few months, and its already agitating, yet you have been doing it for years. I guess my question is, what do you do to not let it bother you? How do you keep your hands from cramping, or fingers popping? It is painful for me to constantly finger spell everything.

    • Wow! So neat to meet someone else who does this!! Ummm, basically, what I do is I consciously think “my hands need to stop moving. Or sometimes I’ll just sit on them. I have really bad circulation, so my hands get really cold all the time, so I have constantly be warming them up. This helps. Also, I’m not around people and thinking about conversations very often, so I don’t actually spell that much… but if your hands are getting really badly cramped, I suggest trying to hug yourself, or put them in balls, or sit on them for a little while… That’s what I do when I need them to stop. Thanks for the comment!

  12. Funny enough, I’ve been doing this since I was young too. I would repetitively air-type a word from a topic that I’ve been thinking of. And sometimes even as my chain of thought carries off that subject, my hands are still typing that word. I played the piano since I was 4 and started playing lots of computer games when I was 11. Maybe that had something to do with it.

  13. Your exactly like me!!!!! I’ll do the exact same thing! I’ll tap my hand against my leg between every few letters, very subconscienly, somtimes one word again and again (in this case I am vagualy conscience.) and somtimes the whole sentence as somones talking or something I overhear. I’ll see myself in videos and see myself fingerspelling, and realize I was unaware of it. Others will ask me what I’m signing while talking to me and I’ll stop and realize I wasnt aware I was signing, and wont even be able to remember what I was signing. If I try to refrain I feel like I’m going insane and just HAVE to fingerspell SOMETHING. Its helped me become a very fast signer though! I’m so glad to know I’m not crazy as my grandparents who are visiting think I am.

  14. Love the third glance. Thought I was in a bubble. Even though my spelling is on my fingers and silent, I have to end the spelling on my pinky finger. Take for instance the words third glance, I have to start the spelling on my pinky to end on my pinky. It’s different. People don’t get it.

  15. Oh my god, I’ve finally found someone like me!! I too have echolalia, but only with my hands! I fingerspell everything, words I see, words I hear, words I say. It’s the only way for me to process the words around me. This just makes me so happy because sign language echo is so rare.

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