In his quest for friendship, Nigel regularly requests sleep-overs. It took a while for him to accept the fact that he could only invite friends to spend the night at our house, as opposed to inviting himself to spend the night at friends’ houses. I think he now understands the way that works, after about three dozen reminders. So last weekend, he invited two brothers from one of the Scout families we know to spend the night, and I made some mental notes as I watched Nigel’s social development in action.
He spent most of the evening in echolalic mode, which worried me. He used echolalia as a tool to be social before he was functionally verbal, but we don’t usually see much of it these days. The exception to that is when he is stressed, which sometimes happens when he’s trying to make peers think that he’s just like them. What he was doing Friday night was not what I call stage 1 echolalia, which is parroting (repeating back what is said to him). He started off with that between the ages of 3 and 6, and moved on to what I call stage 2 echolalia, which is repeating random lines from videos he has watched. Stage 3 echolalia is repeating certain lines from videos and trying to fit them within the context of the situation. Stage 4 is taking those strategically used lines from videos and customizing them by inserting correct names and other details relevant to the situation. Nigel now mixes stage 4 with his own spontaneous speech on a daily basis. But occasionally, when stressed or unsure of himself socially, he reverts to stage 3 and even stage 2.
During dinner Friday night, he was so worked up that he was quoting random lines from the live-action Scooby-Doo movie. I think he was trying to make the kids laugh, because he could hear the movie in his head and it was making him laugh, and he was trying to share that with them. But by merely spouting the lines randomly, he only caused confusion for the boys. They were polite and accepting, but they didn’t know how to respond, and I could tell they were uncomfortable. So I had to poke my head in the room and try to steer the conversation to a different topic.
I aurally checked in a few minutes later, and Nigel was doing a little better. He had moved on to stage 3, and I overheard him say a line from Jurassic Park: “In 48 hours I’ll be accepting your apologies,” when his friend accidentally bumped him. By the time dinner was over, he was back to mostly employing his own speech, which I think occurred because the boys started talking about James Bond movies, which is Nigel’s Obsession of the Week. Aidan and the two guests were discussing the story about the painted girl in Goldfinger dying because her skin couldn’t breathe, and the fact that Mythbusters disproved it. (I smirked back in the kitchen and refrained from telling them about my college days, when a friend of mine did a photography project using models painted in all one color, and I was yellow. Suffocation was not a concern at that point.)
But the good part was that Nigel had calmed down enough to interact appropriately with his peers. How he was acting earlier made me think that he was probably like that at the middle school, and there was no adult around to moderate the conversation, so things just escalated to the point where an intolerant NT kid punched him in the face or told him to run laps around the field and laughed at him. It’s easy to see how he reverts to the stages of echolalia when he is over-socialized because it’s comfort behavior. It’s something that he knows. When some random kid at school is talking to him, he doesn’t know what to expect. So he starts playing a movie in his mind and starts verbalizing the lines that he’s hearing because he knows what comes next. And that is one of the reasons why mainstreaming won’t work right now. He still has a lot to figure out in the social realm. I certainly prompt him when I can, when I’m there, but most of it he’ll have to do on his own.