It’s just…normal. It’s not an autistic thing, it’s not a neurotypical thing, it’s just a normal human thing.
It’s just…normal. It’s not an autistic thing, it’s not a neurotypical thing, it’s just a normal human thing.
I’ve written before about scripting, how it’s safe and comforting to our kids, how it’s often a way for us to get “in” to their brain and form a connection, how scripting can be so positive and we should utilize it. (And as a side note, I thought of another real-life example of scripting. When my favorite yoga teacher ends a class, she always, ALWAYS ends it with, “Drink water, be good to yourself.” And it’s a routine and I love when she says it, and if she didn’t, I would feel unsettled)
There’s a script/routine that I do at least once a day with one of my kiddos, Joey [not his real name]. Joey has high anxiety and often feels as though a problem is an emergency, and will react as such. For example, in the past, his anxiety combined with his impulsivity would lead Joey to push a child if he lost a game, call a peer stupid if Joey wasn’t picked to go first, or just get stuck ruminating if he wrote his name messily. Joey has learned all about the problem scale and though in a moment of calm he can understand and identify what’s an emergency and what’s a glitch, and what’s in between, he has a hard time accessing that in the moment.
When I teach the Problem Scale, to any of my kids, I often say that since a number 5 is an emergency type problem, if there’s a problem for which we don’t need to call 911, it’s probably not an emergency (e.g., though your pencil falling on the ground might feel like an emergency, we don’t need 911 to help with it, so we don’t need to react as though it’s an emergency). Joey latched onto this almost as a security blanket, and for whatever reason, it clicked in his brain.
So when a problem arises, like he spills water on his worksheet, he often turns to me and mimics dialing on a phone and says, “Do it, boop boop boop.”
And I hold out my palm like a phone and I pretend to dial and the noise I make for the pretend numbers is, “Boop boop boop.”
I hold up my “phone” to my ear and I say, “Hello, 911? Yes, we have an emergency. Joey spilled water on his sheet. Oh. Really? Hmm. Okay. Thanks. Bye.”
Then I “hang up” and tell Joey, “911 said it’s just a glitch and they don’t need to come.”
And Joey laughs and laughs and then moves right on. Calm. Comforted. Reassured.
We have done this countless times. For not winning a contest, for tearing a corner of his paper by accident, for not getting to have speech one day if there’s an assembly, for losing a game. The script is always the exact same, and it brings Joey comfort. For whatever reason. The reason doesn’t matter.
So yesterday when there was an assembly and a something happened that Joey perceived as upsetting and problematic, he tugged on my sleeve and I knelt down and he mimicked dialing, so we whispered the script to each other – and he was fine. He rocked that assembly and not only was I psyched that the script worked, but I was proud. He sought it out, he used self-advocacy, he knew what he needed and what he needed was reassurance, and this is how he got it. And that is no small accomplishment.
I realized that I don’t actually know a really great definition of scripting. So, if anyone else has one, please pass it along. The way I talk about scripting is that it is repeating phrases or words, sometimes from books or movies or t.v. shows, sometimes from social stories, sometimes from what a parent, teacher, or friend has said. Sometimes scripts are used in place of novel language, sometimes they are used because they’re comforting, and sometimes they’re just fun.
Examples of scripting can include:
-The 7th grade boy who, every Friday, says to his friend, “What day is it today?!” and waits for her to reply, “Friday!!” and then giggles and laughs to himself
-The 5th grade boy who will only communicate in metaphors related to the Muppets
-The 6th grade boy who, when another child is acting silly, quotes his something his speech therapist said once, and says, “Ohh, let’s remember to keep our silliness at a level 2!”
-The 4th grade girl who, when anxious, says, “I do not know how to tie my shoes” because on a t.v. show once, the character was anxious about not knowing how to tie his shoes
Now for all of those – they serve a purpose. Scripting is purposeful. It’s not useless, it’s not a detriment to communication. It IS communication. And I got to thinking the other day, how we actually all script. Not in the same way that our autistic kiddos might, but we all have our little rituals and sayings and routines that we say and do and enjoy.
-When my dad used to come home from work when I was little, he would always say, “Hello hello!” and if he didn’t, something felt off
-A parent saying, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” every night, before leaving their child’s room
-My brother, upon seeing me, saying, “How’s your face?” and me replying, “You know, it’s okay” [which makes no sense, but it makes us smile and it’s our routine, and it’s communication and scripting and who cares]
-My extended family reciting the same stories over and over again because they are funny and comforting and it’s routine and ritual
-Quoting “Friends” episodes with my friends, because they’re hilarious
Think about the phrases, the words, the scripts that you use to communicate with your loved ones. We all do it, to a degree. And it’s okay.
So when a child you are working with is scripting, script with them. Use their interests and scripts to communicate. Figure out what they’re trying to convey. And yes, there are times that they might just be having fun, because scripting is fun. Like my student last year who preferred scripting episodes of “The Simpsons” to doing any work, ever. And in that case, it’s okay to call it what it is. And to say, “First let’s do some work, then we can script at the end of class.” But if a student says something seemingly random, and you’re not sure why, there’s usually a reason and a purpose. It might take time to figure it out, but it’s there. And it can really help you figure out how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and what they need from you.
What has your experience been with scripting, either personally or professionally?
“I love gymnastics,” she says, out of nowhere. “I want to try it again, I quit last year. It was too late at night.”
“I get that,” I say. “I get tired on school nights too. What is your favorite part of gymnastics?”
“The exercise,” she replies. I nod my head. “You like to be moving?”
“I want a flat stomach,” she responds. My heart skips a beat. No no no no. Please, no.
Tread carefully, I remind myself. “Hmmm” is all I can manage. She continues, lifting up her shirt an inch and pinching her stomach. “I do not want this icky fat on me,” she declares.
I think. She’s a wonderful, insightful, unique, verbal, chatty girl. She’s also 15. And a teenage girl. And on the spectrum.
I choose empathy. Even if my words are not processed, I know the feeling will be.
“I get that,” I say. She looks at me. “But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if there is fat on your stomach, or anywhere else.”
She is listening.
I continue. “I sometimes have thoughts like that. Many people do. But I remind myself… ”
She interjects, “It does not matter! You are beautiful! It is what is on the inside that matters!”
I know it’s a script. I don’t care. The fact that those are the words she is pulling, in this moment, means that hope and belief and self love are all what she is trying to convey, and convince herself of.
“YES” I answer. And she moves on to a different topic, done with this conversation.
It’s a start.
I would like to clarify a few things about my last post. Now that I’ve actually read what I wrote, heard some good feedback, and had a great conversation with my dad about it, I’m have a bit more clarity.
I’m going to start with an example. Examples and metaphors and comparisons help me fully understand things. So: imagine that, when I was born, there was some way of knowing that I was going to be a highly-sensitive introvert. Would I have wanted doctors to tell my parents, “eh, just let her be, it’s who she is and whatever that brings with it, she’ll deal with, it’s just her”? NO. What I would want them to say is, “Your daughter is a highly-sensitive introvert. Let’s give her support around managing her sensitivities and intense emotions, help her with her anxieties and obsessions, and capitalize on how this makes her who she is.” If those same doctors had said, “Your daughter is going to be a highly-sensitive introvert! Let’s help her recover from this so that she never feels extreme emotions and doesn’t have anxieties and quirks” then I would’ve lost who I am at my core. I would have lost my love for nature, my mixing of senses, my tearing up at a sunset or a song, my intuition around people, my understanding of the kids I work with…..it goes on and on.
That is what I was trying to get at in my last post. Do I want doctors to say, “Your child is autistic. Okay, good luck with that”? Of course not! I’m a speech-language pathologist. I believe in therapies, of all forms. I believe in therapies in all forms for all individuals, neurotypical or autistic. I believe in early intervention, I believe in getting children all the supports they need as early as possible.
I believe in helping them to be functional in their lives. Being as independent as possible. Being safe. Forming friendships. Connecting with others. Learning.
But I don’t believe in trying to extinguish their personal interests, their stims, their scripts, their quirks. That’s their core, that’s who they are. If we try to remove those (harmless) aspects of them, we remove their essence.
So when it comes to treating autistic individuals, there’s a difference between removing their core being, and helping them reach their full potential and quality of life.
And, as my dad pointed out, it’s also an issue of semantics. The term “recovery” is just a dangerous term here. It indicates that the individual is afflicted with something that needs to be fully gone. So, I’m particularly sensitive to the idea of helping kids “recover” from autism. Again, it’s an and, not a but. I’m sensitive to the term “recovery” from autism. And, I believe we should do everything in our power to support them to be the best they can be, as they are.
Ed note: The following is from the (imagined) perspective of Declan, an autistic 7th grader who I have seen for speech language therapy for several hours each week for two years. Some of this he was able to express in my words to me. Some of it I could figure out. And some is imagined based on what I know. I hope some day he will be able to tell me what I got right, and what I missed. Be kind, this is a weird kind of writing for me! I’ve never done anything remotely fictional before. All names have been changed.
I walk down the hall, feeling the squirmy feeling in my stomach. It is excitement. Jen is outside her office, like she always is. She says, “Hey Declan! It’s good to see you.” A few times earlier in the year she forgot that second part, so right before we began class I’d whisper to her, “It’s good to see me.” I whispered because that way it would not bother the other friends. And then she would remember and say it to me.
I look at my friends in the room with us. When I was a little boy, Mommy and Daddy and teachers at the other school called everyone friends. But these two are my real friends. They like me and I like them! I grin and whisper to one of them, “C for Carly!” and Carly smiles and says back like she always does, “That’s right Declan!” She understands why I’m saying that, I think. It is because on the show that is Sesame Street that was on when I was a little boy, there was a girl named Carly and that’s what they said. And when I say that to Carly now it is to show her I like her like I liked Sesame Street. And she likes me too. Then I look at Maya, my other friend. I do our Friday routine. I say to her, “What day is it, Maya?” and she exclaims, “Friday!” We like our routines.
I am feeling so happy. Everything is right. Except then Carly and Maya start talking about who will be the teacher when they play school. This makes my belly squirmy but not the good kind.
“Ugh,” I tell Jen. “I really want to start our work. ”
Jen say, ” I know. But we can give them one minute to talk.”
“Because why?” I ask. If there is a reason, it makes my belly calm down. Jen knows that. She always tells me the reason.
“Because it is okay to let people have a minute to talk. It is good practice for them to talk to each other. And it is good practice for you too. Like, is this a 5 problem?” Jen asks.
I grin because not only did Jen give me a good reason, she is launching into one of my most favorite scripts that always makes me make happy noises.
“No it is not a 5 problem. We don’t have to say….” I wait for Jen to do her part.
“We don’t have to say, ‘AH! STOP TALKING WE HAVE TO WORK RIGHT NOW!!” I love when Jen fake screams. I make some happy noises.
“We could just say…. ” and together we say, “Oh well, I can be flexible.”
Now I’m feeling much better. I watch the videos in my brain from when I could not be okay with that, from when it would make my belly feel so awful that I might scream. It is different now! I’m a bigger boy and I can use my scripts to help me feel soft and squealy instead of hard and breakable!
We get started with our activity. We are talking about problems and solutions. We talk about what’s a wacky solution and what’s a smart solution. We are practicing calling 911 because Carly wants to act out one of the situations. She is in theater club. My brain knows that in the file of Carly that is in that folder in the brain.
Carly pretends to dial 911 and Jen pretends to be the operator. This is pretend. I know that now because there is not a real phone. I play pretend too sometimes, like when I feel heavy because a friend is absent so I pretend call and talk to them so I feel better. Jen is telling Carly that the pretend officers will be there right away. It is sillyscarystrangefunnybumpyhardwhirly so my mouth laughs. Jen says, “I know! It’s a little funny pretending.” I am glad she doesn’t tell me to stop laughing. I am not laughing. I think other friends and teachers hear laughing but that is not what my body is trying to do. I don’t know how to explain that. But my friends and Jen get it.
I start thinking about going over a bridge because I love bridges. And then I imagine putting the bridge on my head. Jen used to teach me that we could script about that, but in real life, it isn’t possible to do things like that. I know. But in my brain real life isn’t going on. Anything can happen which is why I am making a bridge go on my head. I start laughing and then remember, OOPS! Out loud I remind myself, “Pause that thought! You can save it for later.” Jen gives me a thumbs up. I pick up my pencil and on the paper next to me, I write, “Putting a bridge on my head.” This is a paper where I can write anything I want so that the words are still there, just not in my mouth, and my brain will remember because my eyes will look there later so I can tell Jen and Carly and Maya about it.
I give one last squeal, because I am excited to tell them about the bridge, and then I make my ears listen to the group.
It’s Progress Report time, which, for a special education school, means reporting on the progress of each benchmark within each goal, for each student. For me, it’s reporting on their progress towards their Receptive/Expressive Language (speech/language) goal.
And while doing that, I’ve realized how much of our data is confounded. I mean, obviously. There are a million different factors and that goes with the job, with the therapy. But I have so many students who live very much in their heads. Some who can even express what it’s like to be inside their minds and their bodies, who can explain, whether it’s through a script or a drawing, how their brain works.
And it isn’t easy for them to come out of their heads. And it isn’t easy for them to learn in the way that we teach. Easier when we modify, easier when we cater toward their needs and personalities, but still not easy.
So when I report that a student did not achieve a benchmark, did not obtain x/y/z skills, I’m struggling with it. Because I want to put in bold underneath:
-Student may know way more than s/he is able to show us.
-Student’s performance varies based on his/her internal state and sensory regulation.
Now I don’t know how much the Dept. of Ed. would like that (sarcasm) so I don’t do that. But I want the parents of my students to understand. That it’s not necessarily that their child can’t do something. Yes, there are things they can’t do, can’t understand, can’t comprehend. But I truly, firmly, strongly believe that more often than not? It’s that the world around them is not shaped in a way where they can SHOW what they know. Where they can access the knowledge that’s being taught. Where they can truly express their knowledge, thoughts, and comprehension.
I just want parents to know that. That I think their kids, all of them, are brilliant. That I understand them. A lot. On a nonverbal way, on that I-understand-him-through-my-soul way. That no matter what my Progress Report says, no matter how many benchmarks are or are not achieved, I will not give up. I will not think their child is incapable, not think that they have plateaued in development, not think that they do not or cannot understand something. I will not stop trying to meet them on their level, and I will not stop trying to teach in a way that they get. And if that means scripting back and forth with a student for 20 minutes so that I can explain a concept in a way that they understand? You bet I’ll do it.
Your kids are brilliant. All of them.
Please know that I know that.