Before Max was diagnosed, before we even took him to see that first psychiatrist who told us all was fine but, when she saw us one year later, acted surprised that we didn't know Max was autistic and said she must have 'forgotten' to tell us - bitch - his kinder-garden teacher suggested all was not well with his linguistic development. Everything he says seems to be repeating something he's heard, she said. Even the tone is the same. When he says 'don't do that' (in Turkish of course, which is the only language he spoke back then), he's copying the voice of his teacher. This, she says, is echolalia. And it's not a proper way for language to develop.
She was right, in that echolalia can be a symptom of developmental disorders, like autism. Many autistic children who don't have 'spontaneous speech', who don't volunteer information about themselves, who don't answer questions, who are not able to make small talk, still speak a lot. That is to say, they repeat things they've heard other people say, on tv, etc. It just isn't relevant a lot of the time. Max used to rehearse entire conversations from his favourite tv shows before he could even say what his name was. Actually that's not very representative, as it's only recently that he's started to answer the question 'what's your name?' by anything other than 'what's your name?'. Let's say, instead, before he could ask for a glass of water.
We worried, of course. And shortly after this we did take him to see that psychiatrist, and then a speech therapist. But we were always slightly resistant to the idea that this repeating of what he'd heard was all bad, despite his teachers' assurance, from the height of her status as a psychologist, that it was not healthy.
I'm still not sure what the consensus is. I've recently begun to think that with autism, after a while, it makes more sense to think hard about the particulars of the situation you live with, than find out every thing about what everyone thinks - including the 'experts'. Not because every one else is wrong - but because every person with autism is different, and because you have to work within your particular environment and resources which people on the internet can't possibly know the details of. So after an initial bout of frantically reading every thing there was - which proved extremely useful to get started - I'm now dipping in and out, and mostly concentrating on understanding what makes our son tick. And here's what we've noticed.
Nearly all the things Max has been repeating for years are now part of his active vocabulary. They've helped shape his social interactions, his imaginative play, and inquiry. TV shows he used to repeat at odd moments are now part of his creative play. He plays 'tweenies' and 'teletubbies' and creates adventures for them based on actual shows, but also invented. (And believe me, if they were just recreations of what he'd seen, I'd know. There isn't one episode I haven't seen at least a dozen times.)
One fascinating feature of his echolalia, that always had us thinking that it wasn't quite as mindless as some people thought, was that he could translate everything he said. He'd start off repeating something he'd heard in Turkish, and pretty soon, he'd be saying it in French too. Just as inappropriately, but in translation. Now, I don't really know about the mechanisms of translation in trilingual autistic five year olds (which is how old he would have been then). But then again, I doubt anybody does. And I get kind of pissed off when people claim they do. Not like there's a huge sample for them to conduct research on, is there?
But here's the thing I was getting at - a bit rambly today, I'm afraid. Blame it on the late night return from our weekend in Cappadocia.
On our way to Goreme three days ago, we travelled next to a German couple who were clearly holidaying in Turkey for the first time. Max sat next to the man in the mini bus. I suggested he say 'Hi'. 'Merhaba', he said. 'Nalsilsiniz? Ben iyigim, tesekkurederim'. Or something to that effect. So I pointed out that the nice man probably didn't speak Turkish. Max is normally good at judging what people speak, but he wasn't really paying attention, too excited about arriving.
So now he takes one look at the man and works out he's not French, but probably speaks some English. So he pipes up: "Hi, How are you today? We're going to Cappadocia today!" All with perfect accent and pronunciation. Repeat three times. And this was a mixture of something he'd heard in the Tweenies, that he's been repeating recently and probably conversations he'd overheard between grown ups about Cappadocia. For how else would he know how it's pronounced in English?
So here you go: a mixture of echolalia and properly learnt language makes for perfect social creativity!
I was prompted to write this post by MommyleBron's post on that same topic. Her daughter has a slightly different form of echolalia - she seems to be a lot more verbal than Max, and quite a bit older, so that figures! - but I found Mommylebron's insight really interesting if only because it shows how differently a condition with the same name can manifest itself.