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Playful Communication Part 3: Wordplay

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.

In troduction

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.

Some words

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.

Stimming

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.

Echolalia

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.”

Scripting

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.

In Play

[colourful line drawing showing two children, one is half way through saying “knock knock” and the other has just shouted “batman!”]

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.

[colourful line drawing with three variations of the same face saying ‘booth’. One looks up to the sky and whistles it, another sticks their tongue out and another shouts it]

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.

Scripting Anarchy

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.

[line drawing featuring a person in the corner with a concentrated look holding out a small building block. next to them towers a stack of different coloured blocks with scrawls on them.]

Audio collaging

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.

[Colourful line drawing of a person happily flapping their hands as different squiggles and shapes fly out of their mouth like fireworks. There is even a little surfer riding a yellow wave]

In Practice

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.

SpongeBob Who-Pants?

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Play Diary: Wanted kids and missing flamingos

It was a quiet chilly day at the playground and I’d been chatting with a fellow playworker about what to do with an underused and in-the-way wooden leaflet stand. I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired and was mostly coming up with overly complex ideas involving a box of wool I’d uncovered and been a bit desperate to use. Fortunately at this point a thirteen year old and master of too-cool-to-care conversation wondered in and I asked what he thought I should do with it. He looked at me with slight bafflement and, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, said “put leaflets on it.”

In hindsight I see that it was the most obvious thing in the world, just not to my overthinking adult brain. I’m also pretty sure he was trying to sass me but he still couldn’t hide his enjoyment of my enthusiastic response. I grabbed a bunch of coloured card and pens, wheeled the stand out into an open space and set about making leaflets.

I amused myself for a while creating ad’s for missing ‘cats’, lost tooth notices and ‘bassist wanted’ posters. This attracted some inquisitive browsing and questioning but it wasn’t until a kid decided to make a ‘wanted’ poster for their brother that things suddenly took off, suddenly everyone was having wanted portraits made and bizarre rewards attached.

IMG_0824

Image shows a wooden leaflet stand with multiple layers. The leaflets are all hand drawn on different coloured paper. There are several ‘wanted posters’, a leaflet for a missing “cat” which has eyes on stalks, a leaflet for a missing tooth and a couple with abstracted drawings.

The thing about this is it was far from a popular activity in the playground. But things don’t always have to be popular to be valuable. The kids who enjoyed it really enjoyed it. It the kind of play that appeals to a certain kind of kid. A play that uses the familiar as a jump of point, it’s a subversive kind of play, a bit like certain kinds of comedy, where you mess around with a vernacular or set of rules that are not yours but you know well. It’s also a very autistic kind of play, and perhaps the kind of play that you might miss if you’re not so familiar with the appeal.

As a kid I think my playfulness was often mistaken for seriousness, or not knowing how to enjoy myself. I remember being in primary school, probably about 8 or 9 and wanting to spend break time writing weather reports which I would then deliver stoically standing in front of an empty whiteboard to no one in particular. From an outsider it might have looked like I was in need of guidance or support interacting with my peers, and perhaps to a certain extent I did, but also I was having the greatest time amusing myself, I was playing, just, not in a way people recognised. The kid who delights in making fake leaflets might be looked at with the same confusion by well-meaning adults who just want them to have fun. As play-workers we can create opportunities to draw this subversive hidden play out; these might just be some of your most joyful and surprising interactions. Examples of this might be making nonsensical road signs, reorganising or creating ‘adult’ spaces such as offices or waiting rooms, or re-enacting scenes from movies over and over with the slightest whimsical tweaks nearly invisible to the outside-eye.

The leaflet stand is slowly becoming repopulated with ‘real’ leaflets and family magazines but they’re remain interspersed with “Missing Flamingos!’ and “Wanted” children. I feel that it sits somewhere between art installation and play activity. I enjoy seeing it change over time, contributing to the playful atmosphere of the hall from its overlooked corner, a quiet reminder that there is nothing in this world too mundane to find joy and silliness in.

IMG_0823

Hand holds white sheet of paper with the heading ‘missing flamingo’ in purple ink with ‘belongs to the yard’ written in black underneath. There is an excellent abstracted drawing of a flamingo with four stick legs,round body and one very large featureless eye.

Let me process my sensory processing

content warning: this post contains discussion of mental health and has self harm mentions

I’m a sensitive guy

When I say I’m Sensitive, I really mean it, in its most literal sense. Certain noises make me flinch and squirm, certain lights make me nauseous, and food is a textural minefield. Wagon wheels (a biscuit with chocolate and marshmallow- a terrible terrible combination) must have been on offer one week in primary school because they showed up in my lunch box out of the blue. I cried every lunchtime that week at just the idea of having to eat them. Ten years later I held back tears in a Subway eating a sandwich with two different crumbly textures that just didn’t work together. It’s kind of embarrassing being a teenager crying at a sandwich in front of your new uni pals. Especially when you can’t explain why and are not even sure if an honest explanation would even improve things. Little old ladies shaking tins and handing out charity stickers were a childhood enemy; to this day I still can’t deal with stickers, sticky labels and certain types of plasters (I’ve made a lot of progress with this one). Light touch can set off a jarring metallic sharpness that runs through my whole body, it can trigger a sudden intense anger and distress; a total mood killer. There is an ingredient in certain cosmetics and toiletries that I’ve narrowed down to being in ‘berry scented’ things, it makes me feel overwhelmingly nauseous and disgusted. I once dated someone who had a raspberry lip balm, it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but whatever the underlying reason, it turns out no one wants to hear “I really like you but sometimes kissing you makes me want to vomit”.

I could go on (and kind of want to because this is pretty therapeutic) but what I’m trying to get across here is that while sensory processing issues can be unpredictable, wide-ranging, bizarre and effect every area of a person’s life they can, perhaps most importantly, be intensely emotional. I’ve noticed that when we talk about things like sensory overload or challenging behaviours being a response to sensory stimulation we have a tendency to emphasise the physical side of things. Being hypersensitive to noise is often explained as being physically painful, and I’m not saying this is untrue, but for me it’s the emotional impact of noise that causes the most pain*.

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Sensory processing and mental health

Let me give you some context; I’ve experienced problems with my mental health for at least the last ten years (before that I don’t really have much emotional memory other than particularly strong points of distress or joy) I’m a chronic depressive, I have ongoing anxiety and occasional panic attacks, I have experienced intrusive and obsessive thoughts, this effects my sleep and tiredness levels, digestion and eating. This is just a part of my life and its okay, it really is, whilst these things are inseparable from my day to day life they are also not fixed, they change and I change. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly realised how intrinsic my sensory experiences are too my mental health. And it frustrates me that had I understood and the people around me acknowledged that sensory issues have an emotional impact I may have had to struggle a whole lot less.

For example when I have been in noisy environment, particularly one with many layers of noise such as a pub or busy supermarket, and move out of that into a quiet one I will immediately feel relief but then following that will often fall very quickly into a depressive and sometimes even suicidal state. In the past this has manifested in compulsive self-harm and related behaviours. It’s taken me a long time to recognise this as a pattern but now I can try to manage this in a healthier way. I can’t always prevent or avoid this state but I can understand it and take steps to look after myself. This is when I haven’t even got to the level of what I’d describe as sensory overload. When I hit that level I just stop working. My thoughts can’t organise themselves, I can’t speak or communicate properly, it can feel like I’m internally screaming, I feel helpless and all I can do if just desperately try to will myself out of existence. The comedowns from this are usually slower to happen but can last a lot longer. It’s very rare that I hit this level but I’m constantly aware that I can and the constant low-level stress of existing in an unpredictable world like this can be just as damaging as those moments when it peaks.

Lack of Control

So there’s that immediate emotional impact but there’s a more subtle long term force at work; the emotional impact of an ongoing lack of control. It begins with being a kid and feeling constantly on the verge of distress, you don’t have the communication skills to explain what’s going on or even the ability to understand it. You probably just have very strong ideas about what is okay and what you desperately need to avoid. You create games and rules to try and control these things the best you can but they never work all the time. Not only can you not control the environment around you but you also can’t control your own reaction to it. You keep trying and as you get older you develop new coping mechanisms, these have different shelf lives, some things might work for days, some for months, years. You have different options, you can become the centre of the universe as you know it, from this point you can make the most noise and draw the most attention and gain control over your environment that way. Or you can withdraw and create a smaller world that just has you in it. Either way you still can’t find sensory balance that other people just don’t seem to need to think about it. It’s a mystical superpower because no matter how hard you try you feel under attack from the world and you keep crashing. You might find it difficult to connect with others, go to new places, and do new things because you’re constantly working to keep your mind and body safe. No experience stands alone, they all happen in the context of both your memories and current emotional state. The impact this has had on me is huge and I meet so many children who seem to be experiencing something similar.

Why am I telling you all this

We all work every day to find balance between the information our senses are constantly receiving and the energy and time we put into understanding and reacting to it. For some people they never have to think about this, it more subconscious behind the scenes kind of stuff, for some it may occupy every moment and use every resource they have. I see this in children I work with who have to limit and control their every experience in order to function or children who find their way through the world using repetition and constant sensory stimulation to create predictability and safety. My experiences is neither of these but it’s also not fixed and will change.

I’ve focussed on hypersensitivity to noise in this article because it is very common amongst people with sensory issues and is perhaps the most widely acknowledged cause of sensory distress. This may be because its impact can be particularly obvious and the problematic stimulus is often easy to identify for people outside of the experience. Effective interventions can be pretty easy to achieve by either removing the noise or changing the individual’s experience of the noise through the use of headphones, white noise, ear plugs/defenders etc. However unlike something like sensitivity to different food tastes or textures where the individual can control what they eat, you can never have full control over what you hear. And this becomes more problematic the more someone goes new places, experiences new things.

I strongly believe the emotional impact of sensory issues needs to be acknowledged and explored; especially by those in caring roles such as mine. Sensory processing issues are super common in people who are autistic, have ADHD, learning disabilities and/or fit under the umbrella of neurodiversity but they are hard to understand. Because of this we often look at them in a simplified way, for example, thinking if you simply get rid of a noise that was distressing someone then that experience is over for the individual. Now there is ‘no reason’ for them to behave in a way you find challenging. We need acknowledge the broader impact of these experiences if we want to support people kindly and effectively.

Let’s let people be complicated and be willing to not always understand but to keep trying. And if I ever appear physically repulsed when you offer me food, please try not to take it too personally.

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* I want to note a couple of issues at play here. Firstly the idea of pain being either physical or emotional is false. Pain is complex and I don’t believe it is ever solely physical or solely emotional and to force this separation is to oversimplify and ignore parts of an individual’s experience. Secondly with this in mind, we broadly consider physical pain to be more legitimate or important than emotional pain. Again I don’t believe in this idea and will be writing more on this issue in the future.