Monday, July 16, 2007

Scripted language and authenticity

It seems that one of the hardest things for typical people to understand about autism is the way skill sets can seemingly change overnight, so that although, for example, I spoke very well yesterday, I can barely manage to put a sentence together this morning. I understand the skepticism I’ve encountered about this; before I knew much about autism, it’s one of the things that most made me doubt myself and question my sanity. This doesn’t apply only to speech and it isn’t always about short term changes either. That’s just the aspect of life I’ve chosen to talk about today.

Some of the people I interact with on a regular basis are familiar with some of the scripts I use on days when speech is hard, but mostly, they assume unless (and sometimes even if) told otherwise that I do this to be either funny or annoying. Scripts are different from stimmy things that are just relaxing or invigorating to say. Nonsense words, syllables and simple random facts (seven times seven is forty-nine) fall into the latter category. More complex repetitions of lines from movies, songs, TV shows or earlier conversations are more likely an attempt to communicate something.

A funny thing about that: sometimes I am completely unaware of what this “something” is until later, when I am alone and able to process the situation. It’s hardly ever a clear cut case of what most people would consider symbolism, wherein one thing substitutes for another; it’s rather more tangential or loosely associative.

One of the common forms goes like this:

First someone asks a question and I can’t think how to answer it. Either several possible (equally valid) answers compete to be said and confound my ability to choose, or I can’t, at the moment, figure out what the question means. I’ve tried saying “I don’t know what that means”, or “I don’t know how to answer you”, but this tends to anger many people and even (perhaps especially) therapists and other “helpful” types have accused me of lying in these cases. Other times, I may be unable to formulate even that much of a response.

Sometimes, though, the answer comes as easily as I imagine most answers do to most people, that is, almost automatically. Only the answer isn’t “from” me. It’s one of my scripts, which may or may not make sense to the other person involved. The answer to “How was work today?” might be “what of ‘what of'' ?” (from a Frank O’Hara poem) or “asafetida” (a spice referenced frequently in a cooking show I watched in the 80s). Then again it might be “fine”, but what people don’t know is it isn’t today’s “fine” but from a conversation I had with a teacher in high school or a “fine” clipped from last night’s Law and Order episode. It has layers of meaning which are not expressed and are not available to me through speech (though I could possibly write about if I had a reason to do so).

Of course, things go more easily when the answer is “fine” rather than “asafetida”. No one thinks I am being a smartass, though they might wish for more information. Yet, I haven’t answered any more authentically. The response is “cut and paste” whether or not the listener thinks I have made a legitimate effort to converse. Indeed, very long and credible conversations can be made up, unbeknownst to the conversational partner, of many of these bits and pieces strung together. And, in some ways, it’s for the best they don’t suspect.

The idea is foreign to most non-autistic people, and would disturb some who might assume that the scripted nature of my talk indicates the entire interaction has been meaningless to me. Actually, I may have had a pleasant and comfortable experience, imagining that the other person understood what I meant, just as he or she imagined I couldn’t possibly find a “simple” question (“How was your day?”) confusing. I’ve always understood that people mostly talk out of habit and anxiety to be seen / heard, that not much is really accomplished through these rituals beyond the mysterious strengthening of social bonds.

So I talk this way and when the “right” scripts are selected, the people around me feel heard, they feel secure and understood. The funny thing to me, is that they seem to perceive my speech as more authentic or more valid at these times when I’m scripting than at other times, when I’m working hard to do what comes naturally to NTs, generating sentences “from scratch”.

When I do this, even on a “good” communication day, it is hard work. When I am “really” talking, the speech is labored, full of long pauses, missing referents, backtracking and parenthetical thoughts. The very slowness of the process triggers both annoyance and suspicion in many people. There is a dangerous misconception that having to stop and think about something too often equals dishonesty. They are not used to having to painstakingly construct spoken language, so why should I find it so difficult unless I am busy “making things up”? They’ve seen me speak fluently, easily, sensibly. And they assume that was the “real” me, since it is closer to what they know about themselves.

If not dishonesty, then the slowness of speech can be taken for nervousness. Just relax, someone might say. “Just be yourself” is a line I’ve heard a few times, ironically, just at the time I was doing that very thing.


  1. I had a morning like that on Friday. When I woke up, I still felt foggy and half asleep, like some parts of my brain weren't on line.

    If I try to have a conversation when that happens, I often get accused of being angry, complaining, yelling, etc., because (I've been told) I have a big frown (probably from the effort of trying to understand what is being said) and raise my voice (without being aware of it; subconsciously trying to make myself better understood, I guess) and ask repetitive questions that are likely to be interpreted as complaints (but are really just attempts to make sure I'm understanding what is being said).

    I've found that the best thing to do in that situation is usually to go back to bed and "reboot" my brain!

  2. Very interesting post, Bev.

    Brings to mind a documentary I saw about Andy Warhol (also interesting that I didn't know he was thought to be on the spectrum before I saw the doc, I just loved his work so much and wanted to learn more about him). Frustrated with an intereviewer getting mad at the way he was answering questions, Warhol said, "Why don't you tell me what the answers are ahead of time and then I can answer them right?" Of course, everyone took this as proof of what an "eccentric" artist he was (or a smart ass) and did not consider that he was actually being serious.

    Karen in CA

  3. I am practically speechless at the moment. The truth is I have so much to say that I don't know where to begin.

    Bev, you are by far my most favorite blogger to read. I learn more from you than from any "expert" or book. I can't thank you enough for all of the enlightenment you have given me.

    You are able to put into words (on paper) what my son cannot since he is only five. But I see so much of what you speak of in yourself in him.

    The scripting, the verbal stimming. I first learned about the verbal stimming from a video that christschool created. It's just so amazing, the more I learn, the more I connect with my son. I just hope/wish the general public will be as open to learning and be understanding and patient with my son.

    With all of the knowledge you (and others on the hub) have given me, I feel compelled to push for an education program at my son's elementary school. He will be in an Asperger's program in which he is mainstreamed at least 90% of the time. (100% if he is able, but he has the option to remove himself if he feels overwhelmed.) In any case, at his IEP I asked the administrators what kind of education program to they have for the NT children, considering there are a number of autistic children in the school. Their response was, "That can be a project for you." And it will be.

    So, thank you for all of your insight. Everything you teach me, I will use to teach whoever will listen. Hopefully, if I am successful, that will include a whole bunch of impressionable young learners.

  4. I love this post, mainly becuase this is exactly the kind of meaningful information that is so sorely lacking in most NT's autism "vernacular". Unless someone takes the time to tell us, we just don't know things like this. Knowing leads to understanding, and then to an improved ability to communicate.

    I have a question on this topic. Does the societal expectation of a fairly rapid response result an increased (perhaps subconscious) "pressure" to respond, and that is why scripted responses are referenced? In other words, if you are conversing with a person who you knew would be understanding of long pauses and such, do you then have an improved ability to verbally converse with that person?

    I recently began to "allow" my son a longer response time before repeating a question that I had asked, and I seem to be getting more detailed responses form him as a result. This may be my observer bias talking, but it seems to me to have a real effect.

  5. A few months back I went on a "meet" with some other mums who are on the same parenting forum I go on. They know I'm Aspergers so weren't bothered when I had to go upstairs to be on my own, or when I was sat quietly for ages in the room with them. I'd been able to talk comfortably to one lass earlier but a combination of a stressful journey and new people to meet meant that later on talking became nigh on impossible. After a little bit I was able to fall back on saying pretty much the same things to people. This consisted of me asking them where they were from and me naming the counties said places were in and then asking if other places were nearby. Later on I was able to talk more easily about other stuff.

  6. I notice that my son's spontaneous speech is at its best when he's extremely happy and satisfied (not tired, sleepy or hungry), or when he's scared and trying to get out of that situation.

    When he's not in the mood for answering questions or listening to you talk, he'll say "no" or "the end". I respect that, and will try to engage him at another time.

  7. Melissa,
    Thanks for your very kind words. I am honored. Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance with your project. It is important work,helping typical children understand the basics of autism so that they don't have the unwarranted fears so many adults have.

    Steve D,
    There are many kinds of stressors which can contribute, including expectations of others. It's important to state that, at least for me, no external pressure is needed necessarily to produce this condition; sometimes it just seems to happen, as abfh describes in her comment here.

    But what you say is true for me as well. When I am with someone who undertands autism, I may not produce speech any faster, but I certainly feel more comfortable and willing to continue and less exhausted by the effort.

    It sounds like you are doing a good job of figuring out what works for your son. I also find it much easier to talk with someone who doesn't repeat questions or try to fill in blanks for me. I usually give up trying at the first attempt by someone else to complete my sentence. Another thing that hinders speech is having someone stare at me too intently or comments on what they think my facial expressions might mean. That last one will shut me up in a second.

    Any other autistic readers have thoughts on Steve's question?

  8. Another autism mom,
    Yes, the "conversation over" script is one of the most useful to have. One of mine is "that's all I'm going to say about that".

  9. As an auctioneer I can rattle off large rapid fire amounts of (SCRIPTED) speech. Auctioning is all about repetition and if the bidder does not play along I can cancel that bid.

    People mostly ask me questions that are very obvious and I have heard 1000 times before so I have a scripted response to parrot back.

    When people go on a weird tangent I say nothing. I may echolalia something that I think fits the setting and people think I am being a comedienne when I am being serious. I deal with NT's who talk all the time and have little content past ego and ferreting out information.

    Sometimes, I say nothing at all. I have learned in dealing with NT's that usually that want to be listened to. Them....'blabbity bla bla blaaaaaaaaaaaaaa' Me 'yeah, about that, I'll get back to you on that. Shoot me an email'

    Sometimes I like to say nothing when I hang out. The conversation around me is rollercoaster like and sometimes I tune that out too.


  10. Very interesting [and helpful] although I'll need to ponder on it a while.

    I would add [without wishing to be offensive I hope] that for my son [one of them] people do not assume that he is is dishonest or nervous. I don't think they're suspicious [maybe because he's still little {ish}] but they do think that he is stupid.

    This wasn't an issue for me until lately [I don't care {much} what people think.] But now that I know that he knows that people think he is stupid, I am completely enraged [on his behalf]. But I digress.

    On a lighter note, I would have to admit that I am the one who is annoyed and impatient, but I'm working on it.

    Thanks again for a very thought provoking post.

  11. Bev, thanks so much for your offer. I will most certainly take you up on that when the time comes. I have introduced myself and my son to the school's administration and am hoping to build a relationship with them so that they will be more receptive to my ideas. I am very serious about pursuing this agenda; however, my son has not yet begun school there and I don't want to appear overbearing. But, don't be surprised if I contact you in the future. I can only be the messenger -- I'd definitely appreciate help with the content.

  12. McEwen,
    It has taken me a long time to be more or less at peace about that sort of assumption. It took understanding autism and also working with people classified as MR to open my eyes to the reality of different types of intelligence and the silliness of even trying to construct this as a linear scale. But yes, for many years, this was a source of pain and anger for me as well. I wish for your son to have many many supportive people in his life to recognize his worth and obvious intelligence. Long live 1RMA!

    Send me an email sometime. I'd like to talk to you.

  13. Wow. This post is awesome. You have just illuminated my understanding of the way my son communicates. I'm not saying I "get it", but I'm a hell of a lot closer. "Thank you" doesn't even come close to an adequate response.

  14. This is really fascinating, from where I sit (mom of autie). I don't want to make you (or anyone) feel like a zoo animal on display. This is some of the most educational reading about autism out there. Thank you.

  15. I was linked to your blog from "literally minded" and before that from Language Log, and it's one of the most interesting things I've ever read.

    This post reminded me of a movie I saw in a theater class a while back. The plot involved a community theater production, and the guy playing the lead would barely talk most of the time, but when he was acting, he played the part perfectly, no matter what it required (stanley in a streetcar named desire, for example). So the woman playing opposite him fell in love with him during the production, but was surprised that he wouldn't talk to her when they weren't playing their parts, even though he was also in love with her. They eventually found a solution: they acted out love scenes.

    It was an interesting concept, but I didn't think it had much basis on real life behavior until you mentioned scripts. Of course it's still not the same exact thing, but do you think it would make sense that this character was based on an autistic person?

    I haven't read much about autism before, but it seems like I'm learning more about it by reading your blog than I would by reading any textbook or similar thing.

  16. Authenticity strikes a chord. I do a Powerpoint + demo presentation to my students under the course theme of stigma. It's titled "Neurosupremacy: the Real Tragedy of Autism?" One demo I do is: Person A: "I have a bad headache." No accompanying gestures or vocal modification. Person B: Ooh, I have the worst headache." Puts palm on side of head, frowns, follows an up-pitched "ooh" with a small gasp. I ask the class "Who has the worse headache?" This confounds students. Then I move into eye contact. I look at the bridges of each student's nose, then ask what I just did. "Looked at us." Nope. This is to say that an aut does not have to make eye contact but has to give the NT the impression that they have. And there it is: survival for an aut depends on falsification. When someone says "be yourself," most auts come to know: 1. the speaker doesn't mean what xe said; 2. the speaker has in mind a specific set of behaviors deemed to enact "being yourself"; 3. The aut will need to observe how others in the room "be themselves" and do likewise. I once made a comment in the Q&A at an aut related session at an English/Writing conference that to auts NTs often appear needy, grasping, exacting. People laughed. They thought I was joking. I said "It's not a joke. It's serious." But no one was listening.

  17. This reminds me of me.....particularly me in restaurants.

    WAIT STAFF: Would you like some pop?
    ME: I'd like some pop.

    (it never occurs to me that they might be asking what KIND of pop I want until they get frustrated and ask that or my dining companion points it out to me).

    The problem obviously isn't me here. I'm just answering the question.

  18. This post rocks my world. I see so much of my experience in it. My scripts are literally scripts, lines from movies. Wow. Very cool.

  19. I remember on the day of the worst day of my life, when asked how school went, I said, "Great" because that was the standard response. I was still looking for the words to say.

    When I gave a presentation for my electronic paint class this summer, I had lots of these sorts of pauses, and stuttering and things. People kept telling me to relax, just be myself. Then I tried explaining some of this stuff. The thing I was presenting was this poster I made with the words: "Anti-Cure Is NOT Anti-Support" and I had to discuss being autistic as part of that presentation. And Lauren Thierry calls Alison Singer "gutsy" *shutters*.

  20. Another thing people have trouble understanding, and I have yet to produce a script that will explain it, is when I stop understanding spoken language altogether and can't pick out what someone's saying. I've tried "I can't understand your words" mostly, but even knowing my auditory processing problems I still have had adults walk away frustrated, thinking I'm messing with them or being rude or something. I have a hard time to understand it.

  21. Hannah's comment about the shy man who becomes eloquent when he is acting in community theatre productions refers to a short story by Kurt Vonnegut entitled "Who Am I This Time?" It's one of my favorites.

  22. He leído su post. Lo que Vd dice muestra que la unidad básica del lenguaje en sujetos con diagnóstico de autismo son muestras de habla ajenas (en ocasiones). Su post confirma con su testimonio lo que yo consideraba una explicación posible al uso ecolálico del lenguaje como un modo intencionado para comunicarse, al no poder seleccionar las palabras y articularlas en sintagmas y oraciones con arreglo a los códigos de la lengua. Sin embargo observo que Vd escribe con un estilo perfecto. ¿Puede explicarme esta diferencia entre su lenguaje escrito y hablado? Muchas gracias. Voy a publicar su post en mi blog:
    I read your post. What you said shows that the basic unit of language in subjects with a diagnosis of autism samples are speaking outside (sometimes). His post with his testimony confirms what I considered a possible explanation ecolálico the use of language as an intentional way to communicate, unable to select words and phrases and sentences to articulate them in accordance with the codes of language. But I note that you write with a style perfect. Can you explain the difference between spoken and written language? Thank you very much. I will publish your post on my blog:

    1. En el caso mío tuve la ventaja de que mi audiencia me daba el beneficio de la duda, debido a mi bilingualismo. xD

  23. I love this blog, it is such a sad thing to have been
    separated from the people who have experienced
    the same types of issues with little or no support or
    validation, yet so articulate in describing their
    observations, and with so much to offer.

    1. I couldn't Agree more Mark. I've been lucky in the NT world, have met some amazing people but by and large it is not a pleasant experience.

  24. OH MY GOSH!!! This is EXACTLY what I do every day!!! I watch television shows to learn appropriate responses and I have a few "fake" friendships as a result of my "scripting". Before I learned how to "script", which is 4th grade, I either changed the subject or completely ignored the person. Glad to know I'm not alone!

  25. Let me tell you an unspoken truth about interactions like this. We NT's do not answer question like "how are you" from scratch, we use scripts just like you. No-one answer's "fine" because that is a spontaneous self expression. (OK, if they answer "terrible, the cat is dead, my brother has committed suicide and I am bleeding from my head from when I tried to close the window" then they are probably being spontaneous, unless they are not...). But the "how are you" "fine" interaction is a script. Its the same as "hello" "hello" or "good day" "good day" or any other similar thing. The problem is if you try and give an honest answer to "how are you" (sometime I try and answer it honestly just for the fun of it) people will be confused and surprised because it's not a real question, its an encoded greeting under the appearance of a question.

  26. The standard greeting formulas and question-response pairs are, indeed, scripted. That's because they're not actually conversation. They're checks for meta-data.

    Prompts like "How are you?" or "How's it going?" aren't so much questions that need answering, as queries as to general status. A standard scripted reply like "Fine," or "Same old same old," is simply an acknowlegment. One breaks script if one's status is abnormal; if one needs help, for instance.

    So the autistic tendency to try to formulate an honest answer to the literal question is, in itself, open to misinterpretation. To someone following the above protocol, it suggests that the speaker's status is abnormal and an explanation will follow.

    Once my Aspie spouse and I figured that out, a big source of daily stress disappeared. Our ping-ack exchanges are a lot more transparent now that we know what they are:

    Me: "There you are!"
    Him: "Here I am!"


    Him: "Notices you!"
    Me: "Is noticed!"

    We've made a conscious decision to rely on scripting to reduce the stressfulness of conversation for him. If a quote, meme, or in-joke will convey roughly what he wants to tell me, he's free to use it, and I'll never get on his case for being 'insincere'. And really, interpreting his scripts isn't much harder for me than interpreting from-scratch sentences from anyone else. If he brings me a box of my things and says, "Take this, it's dangerous to go alone," I'm perfectly capable of figuring out that he's cleaning and wants me to put my own junk away. If I ask how his day was and he tells me, "Streetlights are weird!" it's okay for me to just answer, "Cheers!"

    Some people say we're strange, but they also say we're adorable. Anyway, it works. :D

  27. This is very interesting to me-- I'm not exactly NT, but my language problems are minimal and rarely appear when I am not under significant stress. I'll have to ask my Aspie boyfriend if he ever uses scripted language.

    As a Linguistics major, what seems to be happening (though I wouldn't presume, both because it's not a problem I personally have and because I'm not an accredited expert) is that some Aspies/Auties/non-NTs don't have the same understanding of sociocultural rules and norms as NTs. This is particularly apparent to me in comparison to ESL (English Second Language) speakers, who came make very similar "mistakes" by not following the generally accepted conversational pattern, or schema; by responding to the actual question rather than the implied question (e.g. "What are you doing here?" "Talking to you."); failing to justify responses we consider to require them ("Are you coming to my birthday party?" "No."); and so forth.It really does look a lot like a cultural difference, which is kind of neat. Except that Auties/Aspies/non-NTs might be coming from a different place entirely and/or have other difficulties.

    Anyway, don't mind me, I'm just a language geek. It's just really interesting to see parallels where you didn't necessarily expect them.

  28. Bev, this is OT, so, no need to post it here, but I thought it might be of your interest. Goto 5:52 of this vid:

  29. Bev, I've been following what you've written on eugenics. So when I saw this it kinda scared me:

  30. I've often noticed that NTs expect the scripted response of "fine" when asking "How are you?" or "how was your day" and are usually are not interested in knowing one bit how the day actually went or how one really is. I can tell because their eyes glaze over. xD


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