Have you ever known someone with Autism? In most cases, you need only be around them for a short period of time before you realize they engage in a behavior known as scripting. By definition, it – scripting – is the “meaningless repitition of another person’s spoken words“. It is not using verbal communications to effectively relate something to another person or persons, but, rather, it is an idosnycratic behavior which many people with autism engage in. It can take many forms and, some people with autism are still able to engage in functional communication.
Perhaps one of the most well-known forms of scripting is echolalia. This is where the person, more times than not a young person, uses words – including some which are very complex – however they are said in the same order, and usually in the same tone, as something they have heard from a television show or in a conversation with another person. It (echolalia) can have one of several purposes and this purpose can change over the course of time. Here are several examples:
* In some cases a person with autism might imitate the sound(s) associated with human speech without grasping the meaning behind the sounds. They might be using the echolalia as a sensory outlet: a way to calm themselves when they are anxious or as a means to cope with an overwhelming sensory challenge. When it’s done for the latter reason, it can be considered a form of self-stimulation or “stimming”
* In other cases, a person with autism might resort to “prefabricated” phrases and scripts as a means to communicate an idea when it is too difficult for them to formulate their own speech pattern. For many children with autism, echolalia is an important first step toward more typical forms of spoken communication.
* Memorized phrases might also be used by a person with autism for “self-talk”. For example, a child might utilize a memorized phrase (or phrases) to talk themselves through a difficult process or situation.
As I stated above, a person who suffers from scripting in general – and echolalia in particular – repeat phrases (and noises) they hear. My nephew, for example, parrots the phrase “Pencil’s down. I said, Pencil’s down” He can’t tell us what movie or television show he got it from and neither my sister or I have heard it from anyone but him. Echolalia differs from Tourette’s Syndrome in that, with the latter, the person Tourette’s has no control over what they say. Intrestingly, repetitive speech is an extremely important part of language development and is common in toddler’s who are learning to communicate. By age 2, however, most children will have begun mix in their own utterances.
Functional and non-functional echolalia
For some children with autism, echolalia is simply the repitition of meaningless sounds. This non-functional echoing of real words in a logical order can be very misleading to parents. This is because it makes it appear that the child is utilizing meaningful language which is not actually the case. For example, the child might be able to recite the entire script from their favorite television show with NO understanding of who the characters are, what they are saying, or what the storyline actually means. It may simply be that the repitition of memorized sounds has a calming effect.
By contrast functional echolalia is the appropriate use of memorized phrases for real purposes. As an example, a child with autism can hear “got milk” on television and, later when they get thirsty, say “got milk” with the exact same accent and tone as what he / she heard on television previously. Using echolalia in this way is functional and correct even though he or she doesn’t come up with their own phraseology.
Differenting between functional and non-functional echolalia can be difficult to identify for the simple fact that memorized phrases may sound appropriate or correct even when they aren’t (or vice versa).