Monday, September 18, 2006

Amazing Moments in Autism #1

Remember the toothpicks scene from Rainman? I had an experience like that with one of my 5-year-old students, only with dogs and fewer of them.

We're walking down 1st Avenue. Jude is 'scripting' - repeating various phrases he's memorized from cartoons, computer games, and electronic Elmo toys. "It's a watermelon. It's a pineapple. They're getting on the train. We're going to the zoo. Bye bye! See ya later!" This is generally how he communicates. (And I seriously want to throw all those Elmo toys out the window of his parents' 29th floor apartment. "Bye bye! See ya later!"). Jude is taking in nothing from the environment around us as he scripts. Or so it seems. Just as I begin feeling exasperated from hearing, "Bye bye! See ya' later!" in a high-pitched Elmo tone for the 30th time, Jude busts out with one of his amazing talents.

We walk by a dogwalker with a bunch of dogs on the sidewalk. Jude doesn't look at the dogs at all. To try to break up his scripting, I say, "Hey! Look Jude! A bunch of dogs!" He doesn't appear to be listening to me at all, but then he glances at the dogs for half a second and says, "Twelve dogs. It's a watermelon. It's a pineapple. They're getting on the train. We're going to the zoo. Bye bye! See ya later!" If I hadn't been watching him carefully, I wouldn't have even noticed Jude's split second glance at the dogs.

I start counting the dogs. They're moving all around, and I'm looking back as we pass the dogs, going "one, two three," in my head. I re-count the dogs to be sure my number is accurate. Fifteen seconds or so later, and halfway down the block, I feel pretty confident that my tally is correct. Twelve dogs.

I don't know why I even bother to verify these things anymore. He's always right, and he's always immediately confident in his calculation. But how the hell does he do it? How do you glance at a bunch of moving dogs for a nanosecond and immediately know that there are twelve? What's going on in his brain to make him be able to do that? I'm not particularly bad with numbers myself. I've been known to count things for no apparent reason on occassion, and I sort of understand that it can be relaxing. But this kid blew me away.

It's easy to assume that kids with autism are taking in nothing from their environment. But in a way, they're really taking in everything. It can just be hard for them to communicate all the details of what they're experiencing. They see, hear and feel details most of us miss. Jude doesn't think in terms of "a bunch of dogs." He has a hard time seeing the big picture. But he gets the details right every single time - right down to the perfect, annoying pitch of Elmo's voice. "Bye bye!"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your most recent post reminds me of a fantastic book: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon. It is written entirely from the perspective of a 15-year old autistic boy. If you have not read it, I recommend it highly.

All the best,

12:59 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

I did read that! Now I'm just finishing Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. Amazing. It should be required reading for ... everyone!

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Miss Dennis,

A little known fact among the special education educators is that echolalia is actually a good thing. Autie kids speech follows a different developmental track. Echolalia shouldn't be taken for granted. You need to learn how to use it and shape it. See this blog entry:

My son is on a similar developmental track as the one posted above. Dr. Barry Prizant is a good source for speech development in autism. Google him for more info.

So little is known about autistic speech that even SLP's are often clueless. I'm autistic and my speech also followed a similar path. Oh, and what your 5 year old was doing with the dogs is translating a picture of the group. I can do the same thing. I can see a group of objects and a number pops into my head. I use to think everyone could do this but now I know they can't. Daniel Tammet is famous for this. Google him.

You don't spend enough time with Jude to be able to decipher his scripting, but if you did, you would know what he was referring to. Most likely, Jude was talking about going for a walk, and observing that it was similar to what he saw or heard from a script he had memorized. He is actually trying to connect with you.

kent aka christschool

9:50 AM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

Thanks for the info Kent. I actually spend 20-25 hrs per week with Jude, so I do know which shows and games his scripting patterns are coming from. I agree that echolalia can be an important part of language development in kids with autism, but I think it differs from scripting, which I often see kids get 'stuck' in as a completely self-stimulatory behavior. I can see that some kids are trying to communicate with me when they script, but that's not always the case. It just depends on the kid and the situation.

I agree, though, that both echolalia and scripting can be shaped and adapted to the social situation at hand. Jude scripts phrases from "Elmo's World." Some of the phrases are useful, and I help him adapt them to make them socially appropriate. This morning, as school was starting, Jude heard someone say "Welcome," and he started saying, "Welcome to Elmo's Room!" (In Elmo's voice, of course.) I told him to say, "Welcome to school," and he understood and got excited and kept repeating "Welcome to school!" Then I prompted him to put his classmates' names at the end of the phrase, and he started saying, "Welcome to school Brian! Welcome to school Kaitlin!" He welcomed all his classmates to school. So I totally agree that his seemingly inappropriate language can actually be shaped and used appropriately in social situations. What concerns me is when he is scripting and completely tuning out what his teacher is saying right in front of him. It can be frightening sometimes when he seems completely zoned out and out of touch with the task at hand.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Emilie said...

Is "scripting" a common thing with students who have autism? I have a student in my class who is constantly repeating lines from shows, songs, and movies. He doesn't realize he's even talking many times when he's doing it.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

Hi Emilie, Yes, scripting is very common in kids with autism. Nearly every student with autism I've taught has done this. Your student may be on the spectrum. Has his family said anything about this?

10:56 PM  

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