Echoes

Of the things I know now about autism, one of the big ones I wish I had known from the start is how echolalia functions in Margaret’s (yeah. Margaret. I’ll get to that) brain. Reading up on it fell off the priority list for a while as Margaret started to develop more spontaneous speech, but in the last few weeks I’ve been reading more about it.

“Echolalia: That’s What She Said” by Musings of an Aspie is the single best breakdown I’ve seen of it. Easy to understand, and from the beginning with her immediate echolalia down to non-immediate echolalia for self-regulation, I can trace the four-year arc of her speech development. It’s fascinating. I wish I had realized sooner what the echolalia meant, and how to use it as a tool.

Margaret has moved more into spontaneous speech, questions, and give-and-take in the last several months. Earlier, when I wrote that she was adjusting well to school, she was at the time. Between the new schedule of days, business trips, and house guests, Margaret began to show signs of emotional and sensorial disregulation–meaning, that between autism and SPD, and her routine changes, she was holding herself together with metaphorical tape and string. There was only enough in her for utilizing one or two senses at a time, and after throwing on the anxiety of routine disorder for good measure, I noticed a big drop in her spontaneous speech. More using delayed echolalia, more uses of the third-person, more echolalia as a means of regulation. This is interspersed with huge insights into her character, like when she found the vocabulary to tell us that she found “Maggie” to be an ugly name and she wants us to call her “Margaret” from now on, and tempered by some physical outward signs of extreme upset.

One of the regulatory times has been on the way to school. I was irritated with her the third day because she refused to bring her own lunch box in. I was wrong. I was so in the wrong. Why? Because with a new schedule, with new aides, with going to consecutive full days instead of broken-up halves and fulls, she was DONE. She couldn’t handle one. new. thing. And her lunch box? We bought brand-new this past summer, and she loved it at home, but was now incredibly upset by it. I couldn’t understand why she was refusing to take it and breaking down in tears. I got snappy. I didn’t handle it the way I should have. I didn’t listen to the behavior.

I wrote once that autism has forced me to break down who I was and rebuild myself as the parent I needed to be for Margaret. This doesn’t make me perfect, and the thing about echolalia? It keeps me honest. Most people would say to themselves after getting snappy with their kid “Oh, well, it really wasn’t so bad.” The justification, the “oh, but I’m a nice person, she knows that” that comes after. Not so. Margaret echoes my every inflection, my emphasis, my slightly spitty sibilants. She sounds more like me than I do.

So on to echolalia as self-regulation: on the way to school, we now do this script.

“I ASKED you to bring your OWN lunch box in. YOU need to be responsible for it.”

“That is what I said. Mommy didn’t realize you were anxious. I had no right to get that irritated with you. I am sorry.”

“Mommy was not kind. She was angry.”

“I was not kind. I made a bad choice, Margaret. I’m so sorry.”

“I ASKED you to bring your OWN lunch box in. YOU need to be responsible for it.”

And we repeat as much as she needs to hear that I’m sorry. Ten times per car ride, maybe? There is no lying to yourself when you have an anxious, echolalic child. You will relive your mistakes as many times as your child needs you to relive them. You will hear yourself how she heard you–how cold and mean you sound. And, hopefully, you’ll learn something in time to prevent it the next time around.

What took me way too long to get, and what I finally, finally realized tonight is that we *might* be able to use echolalia as the linguistic bomb squad. At bedtime on particularly difficult days I noticed she would start doing her favorite scripts (usually a piece of new and interesting information repeated over and over) as a means to calm herself and prepare her mind for bed. No different than counting sheep, really. So we were cuddling and chatting, and I asked her a question that was open-ended and difficult. Sure enough: rocking, agitation, upset. Immediately, I prompted her latest favorite script: “What kind of camel has one hump?”

“A camel with one hump is a dromedary. A camel with two humps is a bactrian. Camels eat grass and drink water. Camels store water and fat in their humps.” Repeat. Calm. Cuddling. Happy goodnights.

So from now on, before anything else, if I see that she’s really upset I’m going to trigger her favorite scripts as quickly as possible. We do a lot of sensory work as a part of occupational therapy, which lets off a lot of steam and allows her to regulate really well. But maybe, just maybe, echolalia could be the next best tool in our box.