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How to stop autistic children from scripting

Posted Nov 30 2009 10:01pm
Scripting in autism can be defined variously but generally refers to the ability to repeat phrases or single words many times over. The words and phrases are often copied but can also be self generated. Scripting is generally considered to be an impairment that requires intervention and is usually paired with the word ‘fading.’ Scripting and echolalia often come hand in hand which is why so many of the phrases are easily recognizable as they’re delivered with accurate mimicry. A three year old who scripts Boris Karloff may be the source of amusement, but with an older child, public opinion is less forgiving.

Scripting serves many different functions for a child; it can be calming and self-organizing, a bit like white noise. Frequently the child is not aware that he or she is scripting, which makes it far more difficult to stop or reduce the behavior.

Scripting is generally deemed to be socially unacceptable, which is why it receives so much attention, disproportionately so in my opinion. If someone hums a tune, or whistles quietly in public, no-one is likely to turn a hair, but most of us will notice someone who appears to talk to themselves - a big red flag. If that person repeats the same word or phrase, you can more or less guarantee that everyone’s attention is arrested. I would hope that it is this aspect that concerns most people, how to let the autistic person continue with their daily doings, without being gawped at? I suspect that in another decade, given the arrival of the blue tooth, such behavior will become less and less noticeable.

The negative elements of scripting are well documented elsewhere, as are the many techniques to help fade this behavior, so would prefer to posit an alternative perspective. Although scripting can be irritating for the audience, or parent in my particular case, it does have a number of positive elements that don’t receive much attention.

If a child is non-verbal or has a significant speech delay, repeating the same word of phrase is basically practice. It may sound like a scratch on a record, but all those repeats add up. It may not be that practice makes perfect, but it certainly helps articulation. They also function as a prompt; if you can recall the starting phrase like: ‘once upon a time,’ ‘this guy walked into the room,’ ‘there was an Irishman, an Englishman and a Welshman,’ - then the rest of the story can flow.

The scripts around here are many and various, they change over time and often become longer and more complicated.

[please note that ‘bing, bing, bing,’ refers to BBC America where swear words and other rude references are bleaped]

***



Following the triennial I.E.P. certain pertinent facts grab my attention. Forget the academics, it’s those all elusive social skills that need nailing. Mastery is the difference between potential budding relationships and isolation – if not mastery, at least a move in the right direction. We collude and conspire for some considerable period thereafter, before the latest campaign evolves. Although he often thinks kindly thoughts, he rarely if ever voices them, aloud. He’s a taciturn kind of a guy. At other times, he volunteers information that some people would prefer not to hear, because he’s a truthful kind of a guy. Generally he’s on the periphery rather than in the center of the fray.

We adopt a two-pronged approach after lengthy discussions on tactics – rewards for speaking up in a positive manner and even greater rewards for refraining from saying negative things out loud. We practice modeling at home, all those everyday situations, examples, clues about what is expected and when.

On day one we experience three incidents where thought is put into action. He avoids telling another child how feeble and inferior her artistic creation turned out. He catches a boy as he trips to prevent the fall. He offers voluntary praise to a youngster for his sterling academic efforts.

It’s a veritable triumph. This kind of thing usually takes weeks, months, forever, a lifetime before we ever see anything. Three deeds equate to 3 M&M’s, as positive bribery is reinforcing initially.

The following day we repeat the exercise, this time at the dinner table where we are all gathered to hear of his exploits. He makes a start, after a little coaxing.

“Well I can fink of one thing that I am doing.”

“Wonderful! Tell us more!”

“There was this guy.”

“What was his name?” interjects his father.

“Dunno but he was a medium sized kind of a kid.”

He never knows anyone’s name, grade or class, “he had this rock.”

“A rock! Oh no. What did he do?”

“He was, he was, he was gonna hit this small sized kid on the bing!”

“On the bing? It’s o.k., you can say the rude word.”

“On the butt!”

“And what did you do?”

“I told him, ‘listen up buddy, don’t you hit him on the bing, bing, bing or I’ll go and tell the yard duty lady.’” He uses his most jocular tone, a good tactic when dealing with unknown rock thugs. So much of it is scripts, but it gives him flow and rhythm and confidence.

“And what did he say?”

“He jus said ‘duh’ and he hit hisself on the forehead.” He demonstrates the gesture, just in case any of us were in any doubt.

To everyone’s surprise, he recounts ten additional incidents of his intervening heroism, tales of daring do, most involving rocks, with one exception, one involving ropes.

“So this medium sized guy in a grey sweater, he has these lil kids tied up to a pole at recess.”

His credibility begins to wane,

“What did he tie them up with?”

“Rope.”

“Rope? Where would you get rope at school?” He sister leaps to his defense, “jump ropes mom, he’s telling the truth, you can tie people to trees with the jump ropes.” I do not find this fact particularly helpful, but the detail of the ‘grey sweater’ gives weight to the guise of truth.

“And what did you do?”

“I said to this guy…. ‘hey buddy, listen up……untie those kids or I’m gonna have to report yah to the Principal.’”

“You seem to have turned into a superhero overnight dear.”

“Yeah.”

“And did you tell the Principal?”

“No, I ain’t no tattle tail.”

“!”

“And there’s another one.”

“Another one?”

“Yeah, this big guy was peeking at the girls’ restroom.”

“Peeking?”

He demonstrates the act of peeking, such that we can be in no doubt as to his meaning.

“Really. And what did you do?”

“I said to him I said, ‘listen up buddy, don’t you go being all bing, bing, bing.’”

“Did you use a rude word?”

“No I jus wanted him to know about the rudeness.”

“!”

“And there’s another one.”

“Another one?”

“Yeah, this guy called me a ‘bing, bing, bing.’”

“What word did he use?”

“Dickhead.”

“!”

“Yeah.”

“And what did you do?”

“I said ‘yeah, that’s right, I’m a bing, bing, bing.’”

“You used the rude word?”

“No, I used the ‘bing, bing, bing.’”

“!”

I begin to feel dizzy with the speed of his delivery - conversations of this type are more rare than hen’s teeth. So animated, so jovial, centre stage and frolicking in the limelight – cheeky little monkey. This is positively unprecedented.

“And dis is the last one.”

“Last one?”

“Yeah, it was recess and this medium sized kid had a rock and he was gonna throw it at the Principal.”

“The Principal?” The skeptics amongst us exchanges glances – either he’s forgotten the boy that cried wolf or he’s had a personality transplant without our knowledge – which is more unlikely?

“Yeah.”

“And what did you do?”

“I stood in front of him with my body and went ‘hey dude, get a load of this!’ and then I made my funny face.”

“And what did he do?”

“He walked away.”

“Did anybody else see this?”

“Sure there was loads of kids – it was recess.”

“Savior of the Principal! Did the Principal see you do this?”

“Yes.”

“Did she say anything to you……for saving her?”

“Yes. She gave me two gold cards to go into the raffle for the ‘Student in the Spotlight’ this month.”

“Do you have the gold cards?”

“No she put em in the raffle.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“What a truly spectacular day you’ve had. That’s earned you 12 M & M’s.”

“Tomorrow I’m gonna get a whole packet I fink.”

“We shall all enjoy watching you earn them, since you’ll be home, because it will be Saturday.”

“It’s Saturday tomorrow? No School?”

“That’s right, you’ll have to be a superhero at home. Won’t that be fun.”

“You ….you…..you…. got any spare rocks around this joint?”

This may come across as a fairly standard family conversation, nothing out of the ordinary, how would I know, I have no point of comparison? But around here, it’s heart stomping.

Why would I share this, now that they’re so much older? Isn’t it too private? Perhaps, maybe it is. All I know is the numbers of google searches that bring people to my site. The search is a variation on a theme – ‘how to stop autistic kids from scripting’ – it might be an idea to re-think that one – it’s not all negative, it can be a springboard.

So….was it true or was it false? I don’t know and I actually don’t care. Six years ago I would never have dreamed of such a conversation. What if he is prone to a little exaggeration? It’s all in the mind afterall. What really is the difference between a rock, a pebble and a wee nubby chip of gravel anyway! It’s all about scale or do I mean perspective?

p.s. I came across this site called “love to know” – autism. They have an empathy quiz. It's about half way down on the "left margin." I’m not suggesting you take it yourself because as a seasoned Cosmopolitan quiz taker myself [several life times ago,] I think we all know how to fudge the answers to get the right result. That said, it may just be that there’s someone new in your life who is really trying to make an effort to get to know your children and family, so this would be a gentle introduction in 10 quick questions without the intimidation. For me, as a parent of autistic children, I feel I have a duty to tread gently when it comes to the mainstream. It’s easy to forget how different our world is from other people’s. We’re unlikely to win over public opinion with a battering ram – our greatest asset is our children themselves, who they are, as individuals.
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