Scripting: “Play It Once, Sam, for Old Time’s Sake”
After publishing Repeat After Me: Verbal Modeling, My Autism Specialist, Joy, sent an email to me pertaining to my comments about TV as a means of teaching language. She recommended that I follow up that article with a contrasting viewpoint.
It actually turned out to be two separate articles, one on scripting and one on echolalia.
She said that often when a child is repeating what he or she saw on TV, on the radio or in a movie it is a form of echolalia called “scripting”. Typically, the child will use the same inflections, voice pitch and intonation that the character on the TV used in an attempt to recreate exactly what was said and how it was said. Sometimes, entire scenes will be acted out almost perfectly.
Toby does this. He and I watch The Three Stooges as this is one of Toby’s favorites shows. We laugh and laugh while watching the episodes. The problem arises later when he is scripting. He has watched some episodes so many times, that he can repeat them back verbatim with almost perfect tone and inflection, and sometimes he will rehash almost an entire scene.
I knew that he did this but it wasn’t until I met Joy that she said that it needed to be curbed. I knew that it could be annoying at times but there is more to it than that.
Scripting is actually a form of self-stimulatory behavior. In an article about Stimming, I reference a scene near the beginning of the movie Temple Grandin (if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it) where Temple is repeating a line from a movie over and over and over and laughing about it. This continued until her aunt snapped her out of it.
Like Temple, Toby does the same thing. He is revisiting the scene in his head and even provides the sound effects for the physical comedy pieces of the Stooges. A person who hasn’t seen the episode would have no idea what the sound effects are from.
When kids watch TV or movies, they are able to repeat the lines from the movies. We all do this in some form but it is more prevalent and occurs more frequently with children with autism.
The challenge in curbing Toby’s scripting is that he has noticed that everyone does it. I do it. We all do it. The difference is that when you or I do it, we do it and then it’s done. We may be making broccoli for dinner and in our best Stewie Griffin voice we say “Well broccoli, Mother says that you’re good for me. I’m afraid I’M NO GOOD FOR YOU!”
We may say that and laugh about it, but then we move on. Sure, we may talk about it or regurgitate some other lines in that episode or some of our other favorite lines from Family Guy, but it doesn’t consume our thoughts.
Therein lies the difference.
For a child with autism, that single line from the TV show is not enough. Their thoughts become consumed with the episode as they are playing it back in their minds, as if a movie projector was implanted in their brain. Sometimes it will be played back over and over, as in the movie Temple Grandin, and the child needs to be brought back to the real world.
Sometimes, the child may not be repeating the words audibly but is sitting in a trance running the scene through their head.
Scripting also becomes a problem when the child is acting out scenes with toys. If another child wants to play but doesn’t know the scene and has the characters act in a way that is inconsistent with the scene, the child with autism can get angry. “That’s not what Thomas says,” we may hear the child say to his playmate.
Or nothing may be said at all and the child may simply take back the train from the playmate so that he can continue acting out the scene.
The main point that Joy wanted me to bring up is that just because a child is reciting something that he or she heard on TV does not mean that the child is necessarily learning language. It certainly illustrates that the basics are there in that the child is able to pronounce the words.
We, as parents, need to be on the lookout for when our children are stimming on scripting. Scripting does show that the basics for language are being developed but it may be up to us to teach our kids how to use the language in other appropriate settings that differ from the original context in which they heard it.
If you have comments or questions, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading.
[In case you are wondering, the title of this article is the ACTUAL line from the movie Casablanca which is often misquoted as being “Play it again, Sam.” The relevance here is two-fold.
First, if a child was scripting, this is the line that would be repeated and not “Play it again, Sam” as it is never said in the movie. Second, the child should not be allowed to repeat something over and over and, hence “play it once”.]