Echolalia Means Living Inside A Pixar Movie
It was a rainy afternoon. Tristan and I had been walking down the sidewalk when he dropped his ball and it rolled into the street. He lunged after it – right into oncoming traffic, had I not grabbed onto him. He strained against me, agitated and upset, as I reminded him we couldn’t go into the street until the cars passed.
“Nemo, no!” Tristan said. “Dad? You were about to swim into open water! No, I wasn’t going to go out there!”
Suddenly, the world around me shifted. The row of houses opposite changed into a coral reef, the rain turned into the sea, as my son quoted the entire dialogue of the Finding Nemo scene when Nemo’s father tells him not to swim out to the boat.
“You think you can do these things, but you just can’t, Nemo!” Tristan ended. “I hate you.”
Tristan had recently watched Finding Nemo, and, like all movies he watches, he had seen it more than a few times. In his frustration over not being allowed to chase his ball, he had related the movie scene to his current predicament, calling on it to navigate his life and communicate with me.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence. There are many times when I feel like I’m living in a movie, usually Pixar, usually with talking animals. Tristan, like many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, experiences echolalia.
What is echolalia, you ask? It’s the repetition of words, phrases, intonation or sounds of others’ speech. It is also known as “movie talk” or “scripting” because the children often remember chunks of dialogue, complete with intonation and voicing, and access this information at appropriate moments.
It’s actually just an exaggerated version of how typical children also learn language: through imitation. (Think of the typical toddler who decides to use your favourite profanity at the most inopportune moment.) Late talkers or verbally challenged kids repeat questions directed toward them, or phrases said in their hearing. That’s immediate echolalia. Delayed echolalia, which is what Tristan displays, may occur seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks or even years after hearing dialogue or speech.
“Mum, I see Edna Mode.”
Echolalia was once thought of as non-functional, a random manifestation of autism in children, but it is now understood to serve a communicative and regulatory purpose for kids like Tristan. Some experts say it is merely a coping mechanism used during high-stress periods, relieving the child from generating a response. Others, myself included, believe it is an attempt to communicate and make sense of situations and surroundings.
It has meant some unforgettable – and occasionally embarrassing — moments for our family, when Tristan ‘recognizes’ people from Pixar or Disney movies. Once, we had gone to an Indonesian takeaway restaurant. While we waited, we chatted with the owner, who was a petite, Asian lady with a dark bob and glasses. Tristan turned to me and said, “Mum, I see Edna Mode.” It took me a moment to understand he was talking about a character from The Incredibles. Luckily, the woman and the other diners, who had picked up on the reference, had a good sense of humor.
At other times, it’s decidedly less amusing. One day, Tristan’s school phoned to tell me he had been trying to catch bees. The teachers couldn’t understand it at all. Tristan was four years old then, and loved Winnie the Pooh. He would sing “The Exercise Song” every morning, wish everyone a “Happy Winds Day” if it was windy, and, if he was frustrated, cry out, “Oh, bother!” He had decided that honey was his favourite food and, since bees made honey – well, what would you do if you were Winnie the Pooh?
He ended up with two bee stings.
Tristan’s capacity to shift from reel to real life has given us an appreciation not just for his memory but also for his consistent desire to learn and master communication. When Tristan was younger, it was heart-wrenching to witness his suffering as he tried and tried but wasn’t able to utter a single word. Echolalia has proven to be a tool that has helped him communicate. He has been able to use sentences that he has long stored away, taking them out, dusting them off, and applying them to future situations he finds himself in.
Like any au-some family, my husband and I follow the interests of our child, learn what motivates him and how to talk in a language he understands. Scripting has become our secret language, and we’ve turned it into a family game.
Tristan used to watch a TV show called Waar Is Yo-Yo? (Where Is Yo-Yo?) We adapted it to, “Where is Tristan?”? and turned it into a hide-and-seek game. He enjoyed this so much that we improvised further into, “Where is mama?” By adding a response — “Oh, there you are mama!” — we stretched his language into an interactive, communicative and turn-taking social game.
Now that Tristan is older, we prompt him to speak beyond a script. When he recites dialogue, we ask, “Was that from [x] movie?” to give him a chance to expand on why he used a particular sentence at that particular time. We sometimes write about his experience and try to put another sentence next to the one he used, so he can broaden his vocabulary and learn different ways to express himself.
Echolalia has given us so many unexpected opportunities to connect with our son, to engage him and gradually give him choices in language and expression. Our home feels fuller, brighter and definitely more entertaining not only because of the animated characters Tristan brings to life but also because we see how echolalia motivates him to keep communicating.
We often refer to Tristan as our “little actor.” Who knows — maybe all this scripting means someday he’ll be able to leave Pixar behind for Bollywood.