In a recent post, I discussed my (thankfully short-lived) concern that Bud's classroom was adopting a square peg/round hole, just do your best to "pass," one-size-fits-all sort of philosophy. I based this supposition on a single element: a piece of representational artwork that Bud brought home and that I knew could not possibly be his because Bud does not do representational art.
Since the moment I clicked on the "publish post" button, Bud has produced nothing but... you guessed it, representational art. And he's not just producing it; he has developed a passion for it. On a nightly basis, he pulls out his markers and a stack of paper and gets working.
But I'm noticing an interesting phenomenon. Though he's producing representational art, he is not creating it from his imagination. So far, his artwork has been limited to what he has seen in videos: he draws the clues he's seen Joe and Steve draw on Blues Clues; he draws the scenes he's seen Oobi draw on Noggin. In the same way that so much of his speech is derived from videos, he is scripting his drawings. I've begun thinking of it as visual echolalia.
Framing Bud's drawing as echolalia also made me look at another phenomenon in a different way. In his blog, Patrick Fitzgerald searches for an explanation for his son Dan's recent habit of opening books in synchrony with the opening of the book at the start of his Disney movies. Patrick describes Dan's behavior this way: "He has gone around the house, gathering all the large books he can find. He then lays them out carefully around the room. As the movie starts and the on-screen book opens, he goes along his line of real books, opening them. At the end of the movie, as the on-screen book closes, he reverses the process." I recognized the behavior immediately, because it's similar to what Bud does. He doesn't watch Disney movies, but he does watch Clifford the Big Red Dog, and every episode has a "Speckle story" that Emily Elizabeth reads to Clifford. At the end of the Speckle story, the pages flutter and the book closes. Bud delights in recreating this grand finale - again and again and again. It seems to be some sort of behavioral echolalia.
At the SCERTS seminar I attended, Barry Prizant discussed the phenomenon of echolalia. Too often, he said, people view echolalia as a problem because it is such unconventional speech and, as a result, they respond to it with statements like "Now stop all that silly talk." Instead, we should look beyond the behavior itself and try to identify the function that the echolalia is playing for the child. The most important question when dealing with echolalia or most other "autistic" behaviors - the question that will help us remediate the problem instead of address the symptom - is "why?".
When I look at the evolution of Bud's echolalic speech, I see phenomenal developmental progress. Bud's echolalia seemed to start as strings of words that didn't have any particular meaning to him, but that he used as a means of self-regulation. As Bud developed, his echolalia became more complex and he began to use it in meaningful ways. If we were playing ball, Bud would pull out a line from a script that had something to do with playing ball and seemed somewhat relevant to the context. Later, he advanced to the point where he could use mitigated echolalia, substituting specific references from the script with salient details from the real-life situations to approximate conversational meaning. (He still does this masterfully.) Only then was he able to step out and take risks with creative language. Prizant frames this pattern of development,which is typical of many children with ASD, as movement from a gestalt mode of language acquisition (in which phrases and multiword utterances are the basic units of language) to an analytic mode (in which single words are the basic units of language). This sort of development, says Prizant, is a very positive prognostic indicator for the child's continued language development.
So what role is Bud's echolalic language playing now? I believe that Bud has used echolalia to create opportunities for what RDI's Steve Gutstein calls "productive uncertainty," and what I've called chaos and creation, to test the waters of communication to see if he's able to swim. He started using scripts because that was the form of language in which he had the most confidence. Bolstered by his success, he was able to take a bigger risk and start substituting words. That risk had a huge pay-off and allowed him to have real back-and-forth communication for the first time. Once he became comfortable and "safe" with that level of communication, he was finally ready to swim without his floaties and start to construct his own creative language.
Similarly, when I look at most of Bud's "echolalic" behavior - recreating scenes from favorite videos - I see that it has been an important step in the development of his capacity for pretend play. I think that in many ways it started as a way to connect. Because his real-life peers are unpredictable, socializing with them has been a struggle for Bud. But the characters in his movies? They are his perfect playmates - predictable, consistent, and always at the ready. Recreating scenes from their lives gives Bud an opportunity to be a part of their lives. And, as with his language development, it has given Bud the chance to take the risks and achieve the success that makes the idea of risk less scary and more appealing.
My hunch is that, bolstered by his achievement in language and play, Bud is using a similar process with his artwork. Early on, Bud was loathe to pick up a crayon, marker, or paintbrush. When his first tentative stray marks of paper earned praise, he got bolder and more intentional with his strokes and blobs. When those creations met with rave reviews he took the risk toward representational art, but is starting with pictures that he knows have a "right answer." My hope, and my hunch, is that before long he will move into creating pictures from his mind.
As Barry Prizant said, our attribution of a behavior - our perspective on the "why?" - frames our response to it. It's fascinating that when considered from a different angle, echolalia transforms itself from an annoying, frustrating example of disability, into a valuable developmental process. Prizant uses a quote from Wayne Dyer that I think sums it up nicely:
"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
And change and change and change.