Previously I’ve written about the importance of recognising and valuing different forms of communication and the need for us to allow for expressive as well as functional communication. In this piece I’m going to take a specific look at language as a form of expressive communication and in particular what this can look like in the play of autistic people.
For most people language as a form of expression is something that is encouraged; writing poetry, prose and music is not only valued and celebrated but considered an act that is essentially human. This is often forgotten when it comes to autistic children where “non-functional” language can get brushed aside by surrounding adults as not meaningful, worth listening too or in some cases even seen as damaging to the child. But autistic people should be allowed and encouraged to enjoy and play with language just as their neuro-typical peers are. In trying to prevent this use of language we are denying an individual a culturally and historically significant part of being human. I would also argue that playing with language is one way in which it can become meaningful to an individual. Therefore as people are most comfortable and content when able to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them, limiting this playing with language is only going to hinder their ability to communicate and be heard.
Before I jump in, I want to define a few words I’m going to be using in the rest of this essay, these are words commonly used by autistic people, allies, parents and professionals alike. The basic meanings people use don’t tend to vary that much but the way people approach or understand each one does. These definitions won’t be exhaustive but will hopefully give you an understanding or what I mean when I use these words.
This word comes from ‘stimulatory’ in “self-stimulatory behaviour”. It’s not just autistic people who do this, but we tend to do it particularly often and it can fulfil many different functions. We also do it fantastically well. It can help regulate the senses, manage anxiety or other difficult emotions, be a part of feeling excited or joyful or be done simply because it feels good. Stimming usually takes the form of a repetitive behaviour that engages one or more of the senses such as rocking, jumping, hand flapping and humming.
This is a form of communication where someone repeats phrases or words they’ve heard. It can be immediate; you might say to a child “do you want to go on the swing” and they might say “swing” back to mean yes, where another child, not using echolalia, might just say “yes”. Or it can be delayed, with phrases or words repeated back moments, hours, days later. This could be because they’ve been processing what was said during that delay, or they might be using what was said before to convey meaning in that present moment. Either way it might look like the child coming up to you an hour later and saying, “do you want to go on the swing” and meaning “I want to go on the swing can you push me.”
There are two main kinds of scripting, echolalic scripting and social scripting, although they cross over. Social scripting is using learned or repeated phrases to navigate social situations. The kind I’m going to be talking about here is echolalic scripting which I would describe as where echolalia and stimming meet. People will use lines from films, tv shows, books, songs, conversations they’ve had or overheard to ‘script’ with. They may repeat long streams of dialogue or a short bit over and over. This can be for enjoyment, self-expression or as a way of engaging with someone. It’s common for people to draw on a bank of learned phrases or dialogue (‘scripts’) which they associate with a certain emotion or situation when they find themselves experiencing that emotion or situation.
Now let’s get into the serious play stuff.
Poop Jokes for President
Of the 16 play types described by play theorist Bob Hughes, what I’m talking about here fits best, although not quite snugly, into the category of ‘Communication Play’. Hughes defines this as;
“play using words, nuances or gestures for example, mime, jokes, play acting, mickey taking, singing, debate, poetry”.
You know how some kids just love to talk about poop, sing about poop and call you a poop? That’s a form of communication play. Ever had the pleasure of listening in on a bunch of kids making up format-defying knock-knock jokes? Also communication play. What about the kid in a corner talking to the puppet on his own hand? Communication play! (also; me for the first year of secondary school). When I talk about playing with language, I am referring to a kind of communication play which, when seen through an autistic lens can fracture into multitudes of shapes and forms.
In spite of their wonder and complexity these forms of playing with language often go unnoticed or dismissed; especially when the adult’s viewpoint is skewed by the “functional language only” bias discussed above. If a child who uses language isn’t using words to communicate in the acceptable or ‘correct’ way, then it can be presumed they are doing that out of ignorance. When actually, they may be using their words exactly as they intended, you just don’t have the tools to recognise or to interpret it.
To help with this, I’m going to take a look at some of those shapes and forms of autistic wordplay that I’ve observed and experienced.
Talking as Stimming
Have you ever observed someone rolling a word around their mouth like a gobstopper? Most recently a conversation I was having with a young person came to a standstill as the word “booth” caught them. They elongated it, dragging out the ooooh and shortened it, expelling it like a cough. They altered the pitch wobbling it in the middle, smiled and giggled. This is where talking can be a form of stimming; more about sensing than communicating. Try it now; take a word and say it out loud, say it in your head whilst imagining saying it out loud, mouth it, taste it, spit it out quickly, stick out your tongue with it balanced right on the tip, almost falling… pull it back in, explore the entire surface, look for hidden cracks and fractures, get inside and discover what it’s really made off. Imagine doing all off this and not feeling silly or self-conscious, imagine this being something that brings you immense joy and satisfaction and then being made to feel silly or self-conscious.
As stimming can be used to fulfil a range of different needs talking as stimming is not always going to be about play, but it can be, particularly when the person stimming is relaxed and if they are happily responsive to or engaged in someone else joining in. What may start as stimming as a reaction to anxiety about being in a busy playground may become playful as it enables the child to relax and then morph into a part of the child’s play as they try out new words perhaps ones which relate to that which is happening around them. A child may smile and squeal as another speeds past them on a scooter a little closer than expected, and then beginning vocally stimming, saying ‘oh dear watch out oh dear watch out oh dear watch out” over and over again. To an outsider, based on the words and repetition alone, it may seem like the child is distressed but actually it might be a humorous comfortable and playful reaction. If the above scooter-scenario happened to me right now I can guarantee my brain would shout ‘shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled.’ Just typing this is making heart is beating a little faster and a goofy smile appear on my face. It’s very unlikely I would actually be shocked and appalled, but this phrase is something my brain always goes too, likely because it amuses me. When I’m on a playground most of the time I would resist saying this aloud but if it was a child I knew, who also stim-talks I probably would, and it might become a playful exchange.
Anyone whose spent enough time around autistic people will probably have had the same conversation over and over again. Or will at least think they have. It might be exchanging the same few lines of dialogue from an episode of Thomas the Tank or it might be lines that you’ve learnt from the other person over time from an obscure sci-fi movie you’ve never actually seen. Someone might have a set of questions they ask again and again to get the same answers from you. Much like talking as stimming there is no one reason people do this, but it can be a part of play or a way into play with another person. It can also be a way to establish communication with someone to enable a different kind of play, or an invitation to bring someone else into the script.
When at its most playful this kind of scripting becomes subtly anarchic. You may find yourself in what you think is the same conversation but if you pay close attention there are small changes being made, little explorations and experiments. It may be the words themselves or the way they are delivered. The more you get to know someone the more you might find you can introduce a little anarchy yourself, you might change a word or mix in another concept. If the other person isn’t ready for this, they may well ignore it, that’s okay. A young person I know scripts with SpongeBob Square pants and a lot of the time they will ignore if I try to introduce a deviation. But on occasion, when they loudly sing “who lives in a pineapple under the sea” and I reply “Winnie the Pooh” (to the SpongeBob tune) it stops them in their tracks. They’ll give me a look that says; ‘challenge accepted’, and then we’re playing. We go back to the beginning of the script, both curious about what’s going to happen next, this time when I respond “SpongeBob square pants” it’s somehow funnier than the deviant version. This can go on and on and build and build. Imagine phrases and words as building blocks that are being stacked higher and higher in a tower; they can be knocked down suddenly, pushed slowly, intentionally picked up and placed upside down as an experiment to see if they will remain standing. The anticipation of a fall and element of surprise is part of the fun, but so is the different ways you can build, different colour and shape combinations. I’m not quite sure how to cram humour into this metaphor. But that’s there too, some of those blocks are real comedians.
For me this is the ultimate form of autistic word play. It can involve everything I’ve already written about here and so much more. It’s a perfect example of the idea of the sum being greater than the parts. The parts are those echolalic words and phrases, bits of scripting, intonation, pitch, speed, mutations, hums, shouts and whispers. The sum is a kind of audio-collage that contains all these parts but is heightened and expanded by the interactions between them. This can be solo play or collaborative. When it’s collaborative it’s neither monologue or dialogue but something else altogether. The player(s) will cut and paste concepts together, looping, repeating and rearranging. From the outside this might seem inscrutable or completely random, but it’s likely neither if you’re able to tune in; something that will take a lot of time, listening and detecting for most.
There are a few things that fuel this kind of play; sharing and exploring particular interests or ideas, making connections, playing with social conventions and expectations and humour. The interest is often what starts the play off; chat about trains, Dora the explorer, road signs. Things which may seem mundane to someone who doesn’t share that interest but are a source of joy and inspiration to the individual. The connections are made through that out of the box or unexpected thinking, referencing another interest in an unexpected way. Exploring and discovering connections between things is something that is pleasing to many autistic people. When it comes to social conventions, despite popular belief, it’s not always the case that autistic people don’t recognise social conventions, often they just don’t see the point of following them or doing so causes stress and discomfort. For a child who spends all day at school trying to follow other people’s rules that aren’t intuitive to them, coming up with different answers to the questions “how are you” and acting it out with someone over and over might be very enjoyable. Finally humour, perhaps the hardest thing to try and explain, because our personal sense of humour so intuitive. But there is definitely an anarchic, surreal and abstracted sense of humour that a lot of autistic people share and that can be a key part of this kind of play.
If these are new ideas to you, well, that was probably a lot to take in. So I want to leave you with a few simple things you can keep in mind to facilitate and enable this kind of play and creativity.
Coping with repetition
A lot of people find repeated conversation, particularly questions annoying. If you feel that way then that’s okay, you’re definitely not alone. What is not okay is to treat the person who communicates and plays in this way as a nuisance. If you can’t engage then find a way to be honest about that, it might mean simply saying; “I’m sorry, I can’t do questions at the moment”. It may feel blunt or insensitive but its more damaging to act as if the person has done something wrong by ignoring them, talking over them or doing things like rolling your eyes and tutting. Feeling like the way you instinctually communicate, or play is wrong is extremely damaging to the individual. It’s also good to remember that autistic people spend a lot of time adapting to the way non-autistic people communicate and being expected to do so without question.
AAC & expressive communication
When someone uses a method of adaptive and augmentative communication (AAC), such as sign, sign assisted speech, pecs or a digital text to speech programme, the focus on making sure they use it correctly- where correctly means functionally- tends to be even heavier than with speech. Remember that they may use it for expressive communication too and they should be allowed to do this.
There’s a really easy way to engage and play with someone who communicates using echolalia and scripting; learn what they are talking about! It’s all already out there for you, often just a YouTube search away. Learn who Patrick or Peppa or Dora or Oliver is. (pink talking starfish best pal of SpongeBob SquarePants, Pig, Spanish speaking young girl with monkey friend, train friend of Thomas). Seeing a kids face light up when they realise you understand something about this world that they love and understand through is pure joy.
Language can be a tool of play as well as pure communication, the term ‘word play’ is familiar to most of us, but the fact that it can mean so much maybe isn’t. Next time you come across a chid stim-talking, scripting and collaging… slow down, listen and see if you can tune in. If you’re lucky you might even get an invitation to join.