My son exhibits delayed echolalia, or “scripting” as it is now commonly called. He repeats words and phrases that he’s heard from a variety of sources, sometimes immediately, often after a long period of time. He does this quite frequently, talking to himself as he moves around the house, or during our walks, or while he lay in bed falling asleep.
Everything seems to be fair game, from Dr. Seuss rhymes to radio station jingles to dialogue from his favorite TV shows. Recently he has been on a Curious George jag, so much of his chatter is composed of commands and reprimands given to an unseen monkey.
He may repeat a phrase several times in a row, but he rarely quotes at length from any one source. Usually he strings together snippets from an assortment of media: first a lyric from a song, then a line from an audiobook, then something he’s heard me say. I sometime imagine his head as one of those Powerball machines, with words and phrases written onto the balls, bouncing about and popping out in random order.
There are many hypotheses as to why people with autism script. Some believe it is the communication instinct gone awry, the speaker mimicking conversation by parroting things he’s heard before. Others believe that echolalia is a way to organize thoughts. I don’t pretend to know why my son scripts, though I believe it calms him down. As someone who often sings or whistles songs as he goes about his day, I can relate.
Occasionally he will blurt out something that sounds like communication at first blush. Once he was pacing around the living room chanting “I can change, I can change, I can change!”, as if berating himself for a character flaw. I became genuinely alarmed, thinking that someone at school had chewed him out, and asked him what he was saying. It wasn’t until I prompted him to keep talking, and he continued with the line “if it helps you fall in love”, that I realized he was quoting from an LCD Soundsystem song that I’m pretty sure he had not heard in a year.
Another time, while we were driving to the playground, “Creep” by Radiohead came on the radio, and I sang along at the top of my lungs. Upon our arrival we clambered out of the car and headed to the monkey bars. As we reached the perimeter of the equipment my son suddenly stopped in his tracks and softly exclaimed, “what the hell am I doing here?”