Meaningful echolalia

Some people communicate mostly in memorized phrases or allusions to stories and events.

It’s actually pretty normal to communicate in phrases and allusions. I think most people communicate that way at least some of the time. For instance, a lot of people make Shakespeare references in situations that have little or nothing to do with literature. A lot of prose and interpersonal communication happens that way.

This is interpreted very differently for some people than others. People without disabilities who mostly communicate in literal language are taken much more seriously when they make allusions and quotes.

When a nondisabled person says “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, it’s assumed that they’re communicating and that what they say is meaningful. They are usually understood. This is the case even if there are no ladies present and they’re obviously not talking about a lady.

Similarly, when a nondisabled person says something like “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”, this is understood as meaning something even if they obviously do not have a kingdom and are known to hate horses.

When someone with a disability communicates in exactly the same way, their communication is often written off as meaningless. It’s often seen as sensory seeking, or stimming, or a persversation, and having no communicative content whatsoever. This kind of communication is often ignored, and also often seen as a problem behavior to be extinguished by a behavior plan.

This is in part because there’s a widespread belief that autistic people are all hyper-literal and only understand literal language. That’s true of *some* autistic people. But there are also autistic people who have the opposite problem. There are people who find it nearly impossible to use literal language to communicate, but who can readily make references and use literary phrases. (This is true for other kinds of cognitive disabilities as well; it’s not unique to autism.)

People who can only communicate in references deserve to have their communication taken seriously. So do people who find references much easier than literal languages. Everyone else is allowed to use references to communicate; people with disabilities have the right to do so as well.

Here’s an example of a situation in which communication is often misinterpreted. Imagine a girl named Sarah:

  • Sarah doesn’t say very many words reliably. She can usually say a few things like mom, food, want, home, and SpongeBob.
  • Sarah watches SpongeBob a lot
  • She wants you and other people in her life to watch it with her
  • She says a lot of phrases from SpongeBob
  • (Eg: “I’m ready!”, “One eternity later”, “SpongeBob, you and I both know you’re just using me as a distraction so you don’t have to write your essay”, “Why is it whenever I’m having fun it’s wrong?”, “I’m ugly and I’m proud!”)
  • Sometimes, the assumption is made that her repetitive phrases are preventing her from developing standard language
  • Or they might think that TV is preventing her from developing standard language and that her access to TV is limited
  • Or they might think that she’s perseverating on SpongeBob in a way that’s preventing learning
  • When maybe what’s going on is that SpongeBob is *teaching* her language and communicative concepts, and she’s trying to use them to communicate
  • If so, she should probably watch more TV, not less
  • And it’s really important for people in her life to listen to her
  • And understand the references she’s making and what they mean to her
  • (Watching the shows with her is probably an important part of that; showing her other shows might be too)
  • If you want someone to communicate, you have to listen to them, even when their communication is unusual

A lot of this post about listening to people whose speech is unusual applies in this situation too.

tl;dr Repeated phrases are often meaningful. Some people with disabilities communicate mostly in memorized phrases and references and allusions to stories and other things. Nondisabled people are taken seriously when they communicate this way. Disabled people who communicate in references should be taken just as seriously. (Even when they don’t communicate in literal language very often or at all).