I just logged into wordpress to start typing a post about functioning labels and why I don’t agree with calling autistic people “high functioning” or “low functioning.” I’m still going to write that post….soon. But I got sidetracked by reading this post from Diary of a Mom regarding manners:
I get told ALL THE TIME how polite Juliette is. She always says please, thank you, excuse me, bless you, etc. Her teacher at her new montessori school recently told me that Juliette is always so courteous and polite, she is a true role model for the other students – all of whom happen to be typically developing. Juliette is the first student ever at this school with an IEP or an autism diagnosis (that’s not to say that there have never been students who are actually autistic but not diagnosed, but I digress). Of course, hearing this feedback from her teacher made me beam with pride as a parent, but I cannot take full credit for Juliette’s good manners.
As with all my children, I have made an effort to encourage good manners. Also, Juliette’s therapists work with her on this. However, I feel the root cause for her politeness is really as Diary of a Mom’s Jess explained: manners simply make sense to children with autism, because they are familiar bits of dialogue that they hear over and over, and the responses are soothing in their predictability. When she says “thank you” she knows that the response will be “you’re welcome.” Using these scripts takes some of the guesswork out of social interaction.
Juliette uses scripts ALL THE TIME. As she grows, she gets better and better at using the appropriate scripts and blending them in with her own novel language, so it’s not obvious that she is scripting unless you really know her.
So, what is scripting anyway? It is something that most – if not all – verbal autistic children do.
Children on the spectrum learn how to speak in a different way then neurotypical (non-autistic) kids. Neurotypical children use what is called “analytic language processing,” Basically what this means is that they start acquiring language by listening to what you are saying, isolating individual words, and eventually they begin to speak using individual words, which they then learn to combine into short 2 word phrases, and so on and so forth until they can speak in full sentences.
Autistic children use what is known as “gestalt language processing.” This means that instead of processing language as individual words, they learn by memorizing larger chunks of language. They literally may not realize that a sentence consists of several individual words that each have their own meaning. They may – as Juliette did as a young toddler – be able to repeat a sentence verbatim, but not be able to put together their own individual words to express themselves. They may rely on scripted quotes, often from TV or movies, to communicate.
Here’s an example I use frequently to try to explain this phenomenon. Imagine you are getting a child dressed, and as you pull pants out of their drawer, you say “Let’s put on your pants!” A neurotypical child would inherently understand that “let’s,” “Put,” “on,” “your,” and “pants” are each separate words. They would know that “pants” is the word for the object the adult is holding and speaking of. Once they are physically ready to do so, they will start saying the word “pants” and using it appropriately, eventually working toward a short phrase, maybe something like “pants on” when they want to get dressed.
An autistic child, in that same situation, may not understand that the sentence spoken was made up of individual words. They literally might think the word for pants is “let’sputonyourpants.” So, the next time they want to get dressed, they might parrot “Let’s put on your pants!” The remarkable thing is how they will say it with the EXACT tone and inflection in which it was first said to them, even months or years later! Autistic people usually have amazing echoic memory, so that is why we can do this. This scripting phenomenon also explains why autistic children often reverse their pronouns. Instead of saying “let’s put on MY pants,” they would say “let’s put on YOUR pants,” because that is the “gestalt” or chunk of language that they had memorized. It’s also why they sometimes say things that sort of make sense in a given situation, but might seem just a bit “off.” They are pulling scripts from their impressive memory banks that they think fit the situation, but they don’t always get it exactly right. I remember Juliette used to say a quote from the show Little Bear when she would see cake or any kind of dessert. “Mother Bear makes the BEST cupcakes!”
As autistic children grow, they may go through a process in gestalt language processing where they start learning to break down the larger chunks of language into individual words and piece them back together to form their own original sentences. Some children will become fully verbal (and there is a huge variety in the ages in which this happens), some will remain nonverbal, some will continue to speak mainly in movie quotes. Many autistic people (raises hand) find typing a much easier way to communicate than speaking verbally.
So now, how does all of this language processing stuff relate to manners? Well, things like “please” and “thank you” are basic scripts – guidelines for social interaction. If I say this, the person will say this back to me. Easy peasy. For once, the child doesn’t have to wonder if they have said the right thing, or what the person is going to respond with. That, and the fact that being polite always brings a warm, approving smile and a positive response, especially from grown-ups. It’s easy to see why being polite and having good manners is appealing to Juliette.
Of course, she is constantly evolving. Right now she clearly wants to be a “good girl.” Someday that may change as she matures and becomes more assertive. For now, I will certainly take it though!