The Scientist and I went out to dinner last Friday night. It was the day after I’d taped my radio interview and I was feeling wiped out, so we decided to treat ourselves.
During the course of dinner, the waitress made many visits to our table, asking the questions that waitresses do.
How are you tonight?
Would you like me to bring any ketchup or hot sauce?
Is there anything else I can get you?
Would you like more water?
Do you want to see the dessert menu?
To every one of those questions (and perhaps others I don’t remember) I replied, “I’m good.”
“I’m good” made sense the first time and is an okay answer for the others, assuming I didn’t actually want more water or a dessert or need anything else. Except that I did want more water. I was just too tired to override the default script my brain had settled on and by the time I realized what had happened, she had disappeared into the kitchen.
Not a big deal. Someone else came around and filled our water glasses a short time later. If they hadn’t, I could have just told the waitress I’d changed mind and would like some water.
Functional or Nonfunctional?
So does that make my scripting functional or nonfunctional?
“Functional language” generally refers to language pragmatics or the social function of language. It isn’t so much the opposite of nonfunctional as a way of describing a specific class of language. More simply, language is functional if it helps complete interactions like:
- giving advice
In the context of autism, functional and nonfunctional are also used in the more colloquial sense too. Something is functional if it accomplishes a desired goal and nonfunctional if it does not. You’ll often read that echolalia is nonfunctional or stimming is nonfunctional or routines are nonfunctional. I’ve talked about the fallacy of these beliefs in the past. Just because something appears to be nonfunctional to an observer does not mean that it is nonfunctional to the person doing it.
Sometimes, however, echolalia or scripted language can be nonfunctional and I think it’s important for us to learn to spot those times, either in ourselves or in a loved one.
On the surface, my scripted (and probably echolalic) answers to the waitress were functional. She asked. I answered. She went away thinking that we’d completed a series of successful exchanges of information.
For me, however, it was a mixed bag. When the script lined up with my actual feelings, it was functional. It was also functional in the sense that it allowed me to reflexively “pass” in a situation that wasn’t high stakes. Not every social interaction is important. Sometimes the goal is simply to answer the other person so they’ll go about their business and leave you alone.
The alternative that night was repeated variations on this short yet uncomfortable exchange:
Me: I’d like an iced tea, please.
Waitress: Would you like sugar?
Me: No, I’d like it . . .
Me: [can taste what I mean but the word is nowhere to be found]
Me: [wow, cannot even produce a word that is close or any word at all]
Waitress: . . .
Me: [clearly, this flaily hand gesture is not conveying what I mean, is my mouth stuck in this open position now? will this silence go on forever?]
Scripting can grease the social wheels and I think those of us who have trained ourselves to pass will often unconsciously default to scripting or echolalia simply to conceal the fact that we can’t find the right word or we’ve lost the thread of a conversation. After all, there’s often subtle, unspoken social pressure to keep a conversation moving along.
Scripting becomes nonfunctional when an incorrect or inappropriate script is offered up automatically by a brain pressured to respond. When The Scientist observed that I was scripting with the waitress, but not with him, I knew immediately that it was because I don’t feel the same pressure to perform when I’m talking with him.
The waitress has other customers and her time at our table is limited. Whether it’s true or not, I feel like I need to come up with a snappy answer so she can move on and do her job. When I’m talking to The Scientist, I know that he’s used to my pauses and edits. m\My scripts naturally switch themselves off.
The interesting thing to me about my exchanges with the waitress was how automatic they felt. After I didn’t get my water, I knew what I’d been doing, but I still found it hard to stop. It was a bit like that moment of slow motion horror when you’ve dropped something and it hasn’t hit the floor yet. On some level I saw what was happening but it was simultaneously too late to do anything to stop it. Every single time.
Recognizing the Difference
Automatic scripting can be as harmless as what I’ve described here or it can be a serious impediment to communication. Imagine if instead of a restaurant I was at the emergency room and instead of a waitress I was talking to a doctor. Repeatedly scripting “I’m good” would be a nonfunctional and potentially dangerous form of communication.
There’s no hard and fast rule about whether scripting, echolalia and other atypical types of speech are functional or not. A big part of the equation is situational:
- Scripting and/or echolalia can be functional if the speaker’s words are aligned with what the speaker would like to express. If not, they may be nonfunctional.
- Scripting and/or echolalia can be functional if the speaker’s words are coded in a form that their listener understands, even if the literal meaning of the words does not relate to the speaker’s intended meaning. If the listener is unfamiliar with the coded meaning, the words may be functional for the speaker, but unusable on the listener’s part.
- Scripting and/or echolalia can be functional if they allow for low stakes interaction or connection, even in the absence of providing actual information. Not all functional communication is transactional.
When language is nonfunctional, it’s often hard for the speaker to self-correct. In my experience, nonfunctional language doesn’t happen by choice but as a kind of defense mechanism or a last ditch effort to keep the lines of communication open in some way, even if it’s an unreliable and potentially harmful way.
As The Scientist has learned to recognize when I’m defaulting to a nonfunctional type of communication that may be counterproductive, he’s increasingly become good at checking in with me. The simple act of pausing within a situation to say “Is _______ what you mean (want/need/think)?” can be enough to take me out of my scripted or echolalia speech. And that’s a good thing, because too often my script isn’t matching up with my feelings or needs in those situations. I’m simply producing the easiest verbal responses to stay–or at least appear to stay–engaged.
Successful communication requires both a giver (speaker) and a receiver of words (listener). When two people know each other well, they often have lots of little in jokes and code words they use, which are mostly meaningless to others. Echolalia and scripting work much the same way.
If you have a family member who uses echolalic or scripted phrases to communicate, you may have the equivalent of a mental decoder that tells you that “put on your shoes” means “let’s go to the park” and “I want toast” means “I’m hungry.” The two of you may find it fun to interact by repeating animal sounds, playing with nonsense words or replaying scenes from a favorite movie or TV show. Sometimes functional communication is used to accomplish a task and sometimes it’s simply a way to say, “I’m here, I see you and I like spending time with you.”
If you want to read more about scripting, Ariane Zurcher has a terrific post today on the topic as well: Scripts – A Communication Bridge