Do you have an autistic friend or loved one who repeats everything you say all the time? Or do you know someone with autism spectrum disorder who's in the habit of talking to themselves?
Most repetition is a result of echolalia and scripting, and both are common among young children and autistics of all ages. Why do we repeat? Find out what's going on from an autistic parent's point of view.
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Transcript: Echolalia and Scripting in Autism: Why We Autistics Repeat
(Thank you to Justice Ross for their beautiful transcription of this episode!)
Every day, scientists are learning more and more about how human brains work and how many of us don’t fit into the old fashioned understanding of how brains should work. But a lot of ideas about parenting and familial relationships still need to catch up to the reality of human variation. Neurological differences are natural, profoundly valuable parts of being in a community together and of being part of a family. Whoever you are, wherever you are in your journey, I am here to explore with you. We are all in this together.
Welcome to Neurodiverging.
What Is Autistic Scripting?
Hello, hello, welcome to Neurodiverging. My name is Danielle, and I am so glad you are here with me today. Today we are talking about a question that I got in through an email to the website; I’m at neurodiverging.com if you ever have any questions. It was Caitlyn, [who] asked about scripting in autistic kids, and also had a question about whether adult autistic people still script sometimes.
So what I have [planned] today is just to talk a little bit about what scripting is, what it means, and why autistics use scripts, and whether parents really need to worry about it or not. So let’s get into it!
So scripting is also called echolalia, and it is usually in children; it’s a normal part of child development for all kids, neurodiverse or neurotypical. But we see it linger longer, often, in kids with autism, sometimes also in kids with other developmental delays. It is a repetition of words, and phrases, and speech sounds, and sometimes also intonation. It’s often taken from somewhere. So the child watched a movie, or somebody was reading them a book, or somebody else just said something in conversation that the child overheard. And the child kind of, like, yoinks that phrase, and then repeats it out of context in later conversations—sometimes just over, and over, and over again, repeating it, and sometimes just, sort of, it seems random to a neurotypical person, it seems to lack context within the conversation.
People with autism often script a lot when they’re learning to talk. But, for Caitlyn’s question, even adults with autism script sometimes. I use scripts constantly, myself. That’s a personal experience. I know some autistic people who use them very rarely, or only use them in certain types of ways; I use them all the time.
Why Do Autistics Script?
So, “Why do autistics use scripts?” is the main question.
Like I said, children who are younger and are still learning to speak use scripts in the process of learning to talk. It’s very hard for kids to pay attention to the specific words people are saying on top of the social conventions that are taking place in a conversation. And so a lot of kids can only really focus on one of those things at a time. And so they’ll use a script so that they can focus more energy on the social conventions that are going on between two people or among a group.
Adults also use scripts similarly. A lot of us—and I’ll speak for myself as an autistic person—I have a lot of trouble following social cues in a 1-on-1 conversation, and even more trouble in a group conversation. I’m pretty much helpless in a group conversation. It’s too fast, I can’t keep up, I can’t listen to the words and also process the social dynamics between people. You’re asking me to look at and recognize emotions from people’s faces. I’m a little faceblind anyway, so it’s an extra ask. And then you’re also asking me to follow sometimes a very fast conversation, sometimes among people I don’t really know, and so I don’t know their… their kind of patterns yet. I can’t really tell what they’re feeling or what they’re thinking. And sometimes, I have trouble just understanding what they’re saying, in a very basic way.
My partner, for example, when he is excited about something, he drops nouns. He won’t use specific nouns, he’ll just use “it” and “them” and “they.” And I cannot follow it. I have to repeatedly ask for him to be more specific in what he’s talking about. And it can be really frustrating for him, because he’s excited, he wants to tell me, and I’m like, “What does ‘it’ mean in this sentence? Can you tell me about ‘it’?” And that can be frustrating for him.
And he is my partner, and we lived together for over 10 years. So, much less in a conversation with a lot of people that I don’t know, or people that I don’t know that well or can’t follow that well. I will fall back on scripting as a way to clear up some mental space for myself to process all the rest of it.
So, a lot of autistic people struggle to create speech that is spontaneous, that is kind of generative. A lot of us, it’s a lot easier to find a script in our head from something else and just repurpose it. We’ve already probably processed that sentence or that couple of words, that phrase, and we know what it means, and we know different ways to utilize it, and it’s really easy for us to just plug it into a blank space. Generating words for that blank space is way harder, uses a lot more processing power, and, just depending on who you’re talking to, that processing power might be in short supply. My experience is that a lot of autistic adults still use scripting just to make life easier for themselves, to get more done during the day.
Echolalia As A Coping Mechanism for Cognitive Load
So I researched a little bit about this. Most of this is gonna be about, like, my experience as an adult, and also my friends’ experiences as adults, and also my children’s experiences. But I did look at a couple studies on echolalia. I am not an expert, nor do I play one on TV, so do your own research.
But what I found is that it’s pretty well-known, from scientific studies on autistic kids, that echolalia in general—so not just scripting, but all kinds of repeated phrasing—is used as a coping mechanism to allow somebody with autism to add to a conversation when they’re having trouble generating the speech themselves. And that’s basically been my experience too. So my own experience seems to match up with what the scientists have found. So that’s kind of interesting to know, from my perspective.
Now, scripting is, for me, a series of words or phrases that are dynamic, that I can memorize and sort of plug in to a wide variety of situations.
So, conversations about the weather, which my friends and I love to complain about— Conversations about the weather don’t serve a purpose. They serve a purpose for a lot of neurotypical people, because I understand that they create kind of a sense of community and a sense of trust.
For someone with my brain, I’m not really interested in the weather, and talking about the weather with me won’t really create any kind of bond between you and me. Talking about something I care about or something you care about will create a bond for me. But I understand a lot of neurotypical folks kind of go the opposite way, where they want to talk about something that doesn’t really matter before they talk about something that’s sort of more emotionally tinted. Whereas, I am interested in you and what you really think, like, that kind of deep thought philosophical stuff; I’m not really interested in what you think that cloud looks like, unless it links to something important in your life, ok?
But anyway, the weather. The weather is a really good place to deploy scripting. So I can memorize a couple of different responses about the weather, and then when somebody asks me about the weather, again, I go to a response that sounds relatively natural, that probably won’t be interrogated further, so I don’t really have to have, like, backups about the weather, and it solves that social issue that I’m having of, like, “What do I say to this person” without costing me a lot of processing time or a lot of function. And I’ll use those scripts with meeting new people; I have a couple of go-to topics that most people are interested in that I can kind of deploy a certain amount of information about those topics and participate in a conversation. And hopefully, by that time, we’ve stumbled into finding something we actually have in common, and I can pull off of that. But, in general, I have a couple of go-to scripts that I use almost every day, certainly every week.
My experience is that a lot of autistic adults, especially those who are relatively verbal, kind of do the same thing just to get through the day. A lot of autistic kids do too. And autistics who are nonverbal often— we find that scripting and echolalia can happen even with alternative communication methods. So it’s not specifically speech. It’s most often speech, I believe, but you do see it in autistic folks who are nonverbal as well. And sometimes, with them, it’s more of the intonation. If they’re not using words, they’re using specific kinds of sounds to create this communication for themselves.
5 Reasons Autistic People Use Scripts and Echolalia
So now, let’s talk about: Why do autistics use scripts outside of having trouble producing spontaneous words?
So, there were 5 different ways that I came up with. I’m sure there is more. This particular bit I didn’t do much research about, because I am not a speech therapist, I’m not any kind of expert in speech. This is just my experience, again, as a mom of an autistic kid and as an autistic person myself. These are the 5 that I’ve seen come up most in my life and in my kiddo’s life, and that I think are possibly the most relevant at least for us, and maybe for other people as well. I don’t want to speak to things that I really don’t know about. So here are my 5! Ready?
Self-Stimulation and Self-Regulation
The 1st is that autistics use scripts as a form of self-stimulation and also as a form of self-regulation.
So you might have heard of stimming, and I gotta do a podcast on that coming up, but stimming is kind of a way we can self-regulate. It can be a way of exciting certain parts of our bodies or thoughts, and it can also be a way that we self-regulate.
Stimming is often physical. Like, I tap on things, and I wiggle my fingers a lot, and I pull on my hair. Sometimes people will rock, or bounce, or kind of bang, or thump on things. My kiddos like to thump on floor a lot, or kind of fall over and slump into the floor to get that big oomf at the bottom of the floor. There’s all sorts of different kinds of self-stims.
But one kind of stim is echolalia. So repeating quotes or phrases from a movie that you really like, or a television show you really like, or a book you really like, or— Especially if it’s a part of that media that you really identified with that character or you had a strong emotional reaction to it, you might repeat that kind of over and over. And it might seem very random to outsiders. But it fits in with your own thought process, where your brain is, basically, what you’re thinking about. Also, sometimes if it’s a script, or a couple of words or a phrase, that’s stolen from a real life person who said something to you, you might use it when you’re having an emotion [or] reaction that’s similar to what was happening when you heard those words. Sometimes that’s not it, but often it is.
And because you’re not in the autistic person’s head, sometimes you can’t see that that’s what’s going on. So it looks, again, random and out of context, but internally, it makes sense to the person who’s saying it. So, scripts are used a lot as self-regulation.
Also, as someone, myself, who is anxious and tends to get stuck on something and kind of circle around it over, and over, and over again, I can sort of use quotes that make me happy to trick my brain into a new context. To trick my brain out of thinking about something that I really know I shouldn’t be thinking about anymore, and to thinking about something happy instead. So that’s, again, the self-regulation that scripting can really help with.
Scripting as a Processing Aid
Ok, the 2nd time— …not “time.”
The 2nd reason that autistic people use scripts, that I can think of, is (I talked about it a little bit) as a processing aid. To move some of that burden off my internal server and onto this little script that just goes.
I don’t have to generate a new sentence about the weather every time we talk about the weather. I have a set of 5 go-to sentences that generally are good enough, that takes a lot of the burden off of whatever the rest of my brain is doing.
So, don’t underestimate the use of processing aids. Like, a lot of us just don’t have a lot of extra processing power. We have to process a lot more things 1-by-1 than neurotypical people do. A lot of your processing is automatic, and ours is really, we have to do 1, and then 2, and then 3, and then 4. So it takes a lot more to do things that neurotypical people do every day; it takes a lot more for autistic people to do that. So, any way that we can shift that burden off of our brains and put it somewhere else is really helpful for us, and scripting is one of those things that really helps, so.
Scripting and Echolalia to Support Slow Processing
Related to processing, the 3rd thing is: Autistics use scripts to gain themselves some more processing time.
So this is echolalia in general, kids especially use it this way. So if somebody asks me a question and I can’t immediately either understand the question or generate an answer to the question, some things I might do are: repeat the question, or sort of spitball a couple of answers that really don’t make sense or don’t really relate to the question the person asked but relate in my brain to accessing an answer to the question.
And sometimes it’s, again, easier to just pull out a script that already answers the question. And I just have to find that script because I wasn’t expecting it. So this is like, you know, I was in the kitchen doing dishes and wasn’t expecting to be social, and then somebody comes in the house and asks me about the weather. I’m surprised, I wasn’t really ready to talk to anybody, I maybe didn’t save any processing power for this random question about the weather. So, instead, what I’m gonna do is give myself a little bit of extra processing time to grab those phrases that I have stuck down somewhere. It can just take an extra couple minutes when somebody’s surprised, or overwhelmed, or whatever. So, if a child, especially, is using scripts a lot, or pulling speech out of movies or books or something, a lot of that is gonna be to create more processing time for themselves. Ok?
Scripting and Echolalia as Communication
And then the last thing, I think, that is the most common reason autistics use scripts, is as a form of communication overall.
And this is more related to small children, but sometimes a small child with autism repeating what you said is them saying, “I heard you.” Again, it can be hard to generate your own phrases, and by repeating what you said, they are trying to get across the fact that they did hear what you said. And maybe they don’t really have a response to it, but it could be “Yes, I heard you.”
Or sometimes it could be “Yes, I agree.” “Do you want to go to the store today?” If the child says, “Do I want to go to the store today,” they might be agreeing that they want to go to the store today. Maybe not the best example for an autistic child, but there you go. Some of us like to go to stores, though. So, that depends on the child specifically, and it is, you know, something you have to— You have to get to know the kid first and figure out how, specifically, they’re using their scripts. But a lot of kids do do this, and it’s pretty common. So that’s something that’s just important to keep in mind.
Also a lot of us—and this kind of ties in again with all the processing and the self-regulation—a lot of us are pulling out scripts that we think match what you’re asking. So if there’s a mismatch between what you think we’re responding and what you actually asked, sometimes it’s just because we’re not reading your emotional cue the right way, or we just misunderstood the context of your question. And we’re responding in a way that we think is correct but just doesn’t match what you actually wanted.
So make sure, you know— Especially for low resource, a lot of us are very literal, a lot of us need, like I was saying with my partner and him always dropping nouns, a lot of us need you to be really clear. Especially if we’re tired, overwhelmed, etc. So make sure your sentence— Like, go back and edit your sentence, and make sure it had a noun, it had a verb, it had a subject, it had a- you know? Just make sure that the kiddo or whoever it is can really— It’s very clear. It’s totally clear. Ok? As a bell.
(I strongly recommend this book if you want to learn more about how to communicate more effectively with autistic people.)
The other thing I would say regarding that is that, if the person with autism is responding with a script, and it doesn’t seem to match what you asked, sometimes that’s because our script is related to something internal that you can’t see. So we think we’re responding in a way that’s generalized and that anybody can access, but really we’re responding in a really personal, unique way. So especially if a script, especially with a kiddo, is pulled from a movie or a book or another kind of media, and that is related in our brain to something emotional—like, maybe the person in the movie said something right before they went to the store, but the sentence itself doesn’t have anything to do with the store. The kid might use that sentence to be like, “Yes, I want to go to the store.” But you didn’t see that movie, or you don’t remember that it was right before the scene change, and so it just doesn’t make any sense to you.
Echolalia, scripting, is communication, almost all the time. Like, I don’t know, 85% of the time. Sometimes it’s just stimming, and sometimes it’s just a calming method. But most of the time, we’re talking because we think you want to hear us, or we think that you’ve asked us to talk. We’re trying to answer you. So if the answer isn’t working, that’s more of a miscommunication than some other kind of issue. So, alright.
Do parents have to do anything about child echolalia or scripting?
The last part of what I want to talk about today is: Do parents have to do anything about their child’s scripting? And this is, again, from Caitlyn. If you notice that your kid is repeating a lot of words and phrases, do you need to do anything about it?
So what I will say—again, not a medical professional—I have 2 kids, one is 7, one is 5. They both do this kind of repeating pretty often, and so do I, so that’s a personal experience, it’s not really related to anything else.
(You might hear my cat in the background, I’m really sorry.)
Do parents have to do anything about their child’s scripting? Not really. Like, if it’s interfering with your ability to communicate at all, talk to a speech therapist, talk to an OT, and see if maybe an alternative communication method might be a good fit for you and your family, at least while your child is building skills. You might need to, as a parent, figure out how your child is using their scripts. And this can be occasionally frustrating, I’m not gonna lie, because you and your kid might have different frames of reference. Have you seen every kids’ movie that your child has ever sat through? Because I have not. I know that I’m supposed to, but sometimes you just can’t watch another 2 hours of a children’s movie, and I’m not gonna feel guilty about that.
So anyway: if your child is pulling scripts from— And sometimes they’re pulling it from conversations you weren’t privy to or whatever. But if your child is pulling from media, which is very common, figuring out the context of what they’re using in the movie can really help you figure out how they’re using it. Not always, but a lot. So, you might need to do some legwork to figure out, you know, where did your child pull this set of words from, and what might they mean when they’re using it? What might they be trying to express? Is it emotional content, is it data, is it some kind of logic content? Like, what is happening there?
And the other thing— I would also just want to back up a little bit and say that learning those scripts is not particularly different than learning neurotypical preferences. So you have friends, I’m sure, who speak differently than you. We’re all from everywhere nowadays. And you know that some people like to be spoken to in a more polite way, some people are a little bit more casual, you know. And you might be using different sorts of voices and tones with different folks anyway. So figuring out how your child is using scripting and adapting what you’re doing for them is not particularly different than learning neurotypical preferences.
Also remember, your kiddo is doing so much work to try to figure out what you want as a neurotypical person, if you are neurotypical. My autistic kiddo and I understood each other really well; my ADHD kiddo and I don’t get each other at all. We have completely different brains. We have had to do so much work to understand each other. And she did just as much work as I did. So remember that your kid is working really hard, and you can work a little bit too. Ok?
Another thing is, you and your child can develop scripts together. So this has happened also with me and my partner. We noticed, at some point, that I was using scripts in a way that wasn’t getting across to him, and we kind of did a debrief. I’m a lot older, I have more verbal skill, I can choose when I feel like talking about how I use scripts and when I just can’t handle it. So, you know, I have a little bit more liberty there. But over time, we’ve sort of figured out, when I say this, I’m trying to express this kind of emotion. And now it’s just natural to him.
You and your kiddo can also develop scripts together, so you understand what they want, and so that—and this is important—when your child is overwhelmed and can’t do spontaneous speech, you can cue them. So if you know that—I talked about this a little bit in a previous episode with my ADHD kiddo, and how she gets overwhelmed, she can’t decide what to eat, right?—so she and I have a couple of cue phrases that she’s learned that are shortcuts. So, if she’s overwhelmed, I can swoop in and prompt with the specific shortcut that we’ve both agreed upon ahead of time and have been practicing. And it’s much more easy for her to access that script than it is to, you know, spontaneously come up with some kind of answer to me.
So, if you and your child, especially if you can practice during calm times, if you can work with them during calm times and understand their scripts, you will have better success prompting them to communicate when they are already overwhelmed. And also just showing them that you understand them, ok?
Echolalia is Normal
Another thing I would say is echolalia is a normal part of child development for all children, regardless of brains. And even for autistic kids and other kids with developmental disorders, it can be part of who your child is and not really something you need to change. If you’re worried about it, I will say that it does tend to decrease as your kiddo learns other ways to communicate and other ways to cope with overwhelm and stress. Because, like I’m saying, scripting is, as a whole, a response to not having enough processing power. So the more things you can free up? Like, think of your computer, right? The more memory, short-term memory you can free up, by deleting apps you don’t need, not having things run all the time— So clear your schedule, give them downtime, give them coping strategies when they’re calm. Practice them when they’re calm. And the more your kiddo can pick up on those communication methods and coping strategies and put them in short-term memory, the better they’ll be able to grab them when they need them, and the less they’ll need to grab that script instead.
So what you’re trying to do is not necessarily… Don’t do anything with the echolalia specifically; don’t try to get it to change. Try to understand it. And then try to, like, sort of ignore it and focus instead on what kind of coping strategies you can be working on with your kiddo so that they don’t need to grab the scripting as often, ok?
And that’s, again, I’m not saying kids shouldn’t script. I script; I am 34. It’s just gonna happen. Do I use it as often as I used to? No. Because I have a lot more coping strategies now than I did. So, you know, it really can help. And it is true that scripting can be internal to the child and difficult to translate to new people, and so having other communication methods can be really helpful for everybody involved and less stressful for your child overall.
So you need to teach your kid expressive and receptive language skills. So, how to get their meaning across, and how to hear what other people are saying and communicating. And there’s lots of different ways to do this, and it depends on your kiddo and their abilities and their needs, and I would really encourage you to talk to a medical professional about what’s a good fit for you. We have had great success with speech therapy and occupational therapy in our family, but it completely depends. It completely depends on who you are and what you need. Go talk to your community, get recommendations, and work from there.
[Music fades in]
So I hope that helps, Caitlyn. I hope that gives you some good information from an autistic point of view on why we’re repeating things all the time and what the value, for us, is, there.
I want to thank you all for listening to Neurodiverging this week. I’m Danielle. We have a website over at neurodiverging.com, and there is a transcript over there if you have any questions or you want to review any of this material.
We are posting new podcast episodes every Thursday and blog posts when I have the time, which is hit and miss with my kids home with me, but we’re gonna do our best over here.
If you have any questions, like Caitlyn did, please do go to the website and reach out. And I would honestly love to hear your questions or your input. What did I miss? What should I have said instead? Alright. Thank you again for listening. And remember, we are all in this together.
If you have any questions like Caitlin did, please email me! I would honestly love to hear your questions, comments, and input. What did I miss?
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