There are two small, sealed containers. You cannot see through them. Inside one is a yellow m&m. Inside the other is a blue m&m. The tutor shakes both of them. She excitedly wonders aloud what’s inside. She hands one to my son and keeps the other.
“What’s inside your container?” she asks my son. Without looking up, he immediately pulls open the lid and says, “Yellow m&m!” Without so much as a pause, and certainly not holding up the content for show, his tiny fingers grasp the m&m with the sole intent of popping it into his mouth – and it’s gone. Ah. Instant gratification. Well, nearly instant.
There is a pause. The tutor is waiting. After he swallows, and looks around momentarily, he rejoins the intended focus. He grabs for her container. When she doesn’t let go, he spurts out, “What’s inside your container?” with no eye contact. His eyes are on the prize. She opens it and announces the blue m&m. Mr. Nosy sticks his hand into her container, retrieves the blue m&m, and consumes it in seconds, while she simultaneously (and barely) gets out the verbal praise for his “nice asking.”
The point is to facilitate a conversational response upon being asked a question that generally begs for reciprocation, like “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” For my little guy, the only apparent facilitation is to eat the second m&m. As he learns to ask the question without prompting, the idea is to replace the candy with objects and eventually, (hopefully)curiosity for the answer alone or, at least, an understanding of what is socially acceptable.
During the 24-7 time I spent with my little shadow during Christmas break, I wish I could say I learned more about him. But, to increase that knowledge, I needed to break inside his “container” through words, conversation. What does he enjoy at school? Who are kids he has fun with? What does he think of his teacher? What games is he playing in PE? These are all mysteries to me. Amorphous concepts from my own school years, photos texted to me by tutors on occasion, and bits and pieces of conversations with his tutors when they get a chance, form my idea of what he spends seven hours a day doing, five days a week, outside my presence. Otherwise, it’s all a guess.
For most of our time together during his break though, he was repeating the same 8-10 phrases, he was into at the time. For all his progress, his academic knowledge, his improved fine motor skills, he still is heavily echolalic.
The echolalia is from iPad applications, video games and toys. He echos less of what he hears on television than he used to, but commercials are still his favorite TV “repeats”.
Examples of my son’s echolalia:
“Batteries not included. Colors may vary.” (various commercials)
“Are you kidding me?!” and “Does your husband play?” (Golden Tee Golf – a plug-in style video game)
“Batteries to power! Turbines to speed!” (Batman toys and beginning of theme 60‘s TV song)
“Let’s get some chicken!” (Tap to Talk – iPad/phone app)
“Mission Accomplished!” (Buzz Lightyear toy)
But Toots is not limited to using the phrases of others. Sometimes, he will modify a phrase to personalize it. For example, the Tap to Talk app I mentioned above, says, “I want to go to the beach!” Toots mimics the phrase with intonation, emphasis and cadence exactly. But he has modified it to say, “I want to go to Hawaii!” because he knows we are taking a trip there soon.
His echolalia is not limited by the confines of electronics though. I don’t know where he picked it up but he is constantly asking, “Where are we going?” When I respond, he repeats the question within seconds. When I ask the question back at him, he answers correctly. Then, within seconds, he asks again.
Concerned that it might be a memory issue, I ran the scenario past our neurologist. He thinks that since Toots responds with the correct location, he is either perseverating, likes hearing it, or is anxious. The doctor suggested giving him a visual schedule if he needs it. (He doesn’t.)
Sometimes, echoing seems like a game. He laughs. He asks me to repeat phrases or goads me into saying something he wants to hear. (“Mommy, what does Batman say?” or “Mommy, call Kai-Lan! What does Kai-Lan say?”) Other times, he appears anxious or afraid, and he echos as a soothing mechanism. A third instance of echoing occurs when he is frustrated. If he cannot get his seat belt fastened or if he can’t get his arm through the sleeve of his jacket, he will yell, “Shift-gas-steering wheel!”, a clear indication to me that he is having trouble doing something.
Because he has this trouble getting words out in a form that is comprehensible to others (and, on occasion – to me) I’m left wondering, every day, how he sees the world around him. What does he pick up and what does he miss? I miss details of some thing every day. (Where did I put my keys?) Does he miss the same amount, or is it different?
I’ve seen videos on YouTube by autistic adults who try to approximate what the world is like from their view, but this one below is one of the best I’ve ever watched, in relation to what I know of my own son. It is a TED talk excerpt by an amazing woman with Aspergers named Wendy Lampen, who puts how she sees her world in quite detailed and fascinating language:
She ends by asking people to be a sleuth, to be aware that there is “much more going on in this world that you can imagine.” Many of you don’t have 10 minutes to watch this but for me, I watched it all because it was fascinating. I can see quite a lot of my 6 year old boy in what this adult woman with Aspergers describes of her world.
It helped me to find at least, a small part of the key to breaking inside my son’s container. I want to be there to share his view of the world.