Polite Conversation

‘What ho!’ I said.

‘What ho!’ said Motty.

‘What ho! What ho!’

‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’

After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

-P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919) ‘Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest’

Yesterday, Aidan’s best friend of seven years was visiting at our house. In the spring, he moved three and a half hours away, so the boys don’t get to see each other very often. They talk a lot on the phone, but Aidan always looks forward to getting to spend some time with his friend when he’s in town. And yesterday, spur of the moment, he called right as Aidan was getting home from school. “I’m in town visiting my dad,” K said to me on the phone. “Is it okay if I come over for a bit?”

So Aidan and K had a blast hanging out and playing video games together. I threw in a pizza for dinner and called all three boys out to the table when it was ready. Nigel came out last, fresh off a movie in his room. He knew that K was visiting and greeted him as he sat down. I sat about fifteen feet away in the living room, reading.

They had barely taken two bites, presumably, when Nigel launched into some lengthy delayed echolalia. (Technically, these days it’s called ‘scripting,’ but ten years ago, when it was his primary means of communication, we didn’t have that terminology yet. Or at least I didn’t. His therapists called it ‘delayed echolalia,’ a term which has stuck with me.) I had no idea what was going on with him. He kept going on, rapidly reciting something in a strange tone of voice. Aidan and I, glancing at each other, were stunned by this monologue. Nigel often still says single lines from movies, or a couple lines of dialogue run together, but nothing this lengthy. Poor K was trying to nicely respond, to acknowledge Nigel and converse with him. He’s been at our house so many times over the years that he’s quite used to Nigel’s different way of communicating, but he wasn’t sure what to make of this. I decided to gently intervene.

“Nigel? What are you saying? You need to use your own words, okay?”

“I’m just making polite conversation!” he shot back. I’d be willing to bet money that this was also a line from something, just by the way he said it.

“When you’re having a conversation, it’s best to use your own words so that people know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t need to say things from movies,” Aidan added gently.

“It’s not from a movie! It’s from a book! Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!” he growled.

“Okay, well, how about if you just eat now?” I suggested. I really didn’t know what else to say. I knew he’d been reading that book (the original) for several weeks, but I had no idea he’d been memorizing it. And why the sudden inappropriate monologue? He’s done much shorter versions (of delayed echolalia) in the past when we’ve had multiple people at our house, or in unfamiliar situations, but I couldn’t figure out why he needed to do it last night. Was it a sign of a mini-regression? A conversational test on someone familiar? What gives?

I gave it a lot of thought, and then it hit me. It’s because he’s autistic, of course. His language development was extremely late and labored. The art of conversation is something that may always be out of his reach. Yes, he can communicate. At this point in his life, he usually does it fairly well. But communicating and conversing are two different skills, and the skill of conversing is something with which he will most likely continue to struggle.

We often say, “Two steps forward, one step back,” or a variation thereof.  I could choose to look at last night’s conversation attempt as a step back. But in reality I think it was sort of a side step, a lateral move. He was testing the waters. In fact, I talked to him about it later when we were alone, and he confirmed my theory.

“I just wanted to try something new. I thought it would be fun. K seemed to handle it fine.”

“Yes. That’s because he knows you really well. But it’s probably not a good idea to do that with people who don’t know you very well, because they won’t understand.”

“I just don’t feel like I could give it up.”

“You don’t have to give it up. Just try to only do it around people who know you well. Okay?”


I think maybe it was a step forward after all.

19 thoughts on “Polite Conversation

  1. Tera

    very interesting how even nigel is trying to figure it all out for himself. is it possible it is also stemming from his busy schedule and this is his way of handling the stress of it? and thanks for the reminder that communication and conversation are two separate parts. I needed to have that brought to my attention today.

  2. mama edge

    Nigel rocks! He gives me so much insight into Rocky and Taz, who haven’t been able to articulate why they use delayed echolalia. Now I think I get it!

  3. Michelle S

    I have heard, and think it’s true because I see it in Daniel that when he gets really nervous or excited he’ll start scripting more and more frantically for 2 reasons 1. it is calming to him, (maybe Nigel was anxious that someone else was at the table and it wasn’t planned) and 2. He wants to talk to him, but doesn’t know how, so they launch into what they know and comes easy to them. They like it so why shouldn’t this person.

    Don’t think of it as a regression. Your right, it’s who he is.

  4. Meg

    I am always so impressed by Nigel’s ability to analyze and articulate his actions. The fact that he could do that means this was definitely not a step back. He’s doing wonderfully, and so are you!

  5. Carrie N

    I just love reading here. Listening to Nigel’s words and your conversations with him helps us over here.

    Grayson scripts frequently. I consider it advance scripting compared to the random, seemingly irrelevant stuff she used to always do. (we still see that when she’s upset). But it’s evolved to be phrases and comments that are appropriate (and often funny) to what is going on.

    “I’m just making polite conversation!”
    I love that line!

  6. Carrie

    Oh, Tanya. Great last line, and I happen to agree, for what it’s worth. BTW, I didn’t know it was now called scripting! I want them to stop changing the names/acronyms. Who do I see about that?

  7. goodfountain

    Charlotte’s scripting ebbs and flows and I’m always wondering what’s up. Why so much at a particular time? I’ve often thought it would “go away” when she gets older, but maybe not. But like Nigel she’ll probably become more aware of it, even if she still likes doing it.

    This post was great.

  8. Kim

    Wow, that last part is amazing! For him to be aware that he is doing it, saying he doesn’t want to give it up, and then maybe being able to do it only around those who know him – wonderful steps! I agree–step forward!

  9. corrie

    Jonathan scripts too, but most people won’t know it because he’s appropriate. However, I know exactly where his lines come from most of the time. Then there are other phrase I don’t know where he picked them up, but he says them the exact same way.

    Wow, Nigel is doing good to use written language that he’s read instead language that he’s heard. Maybe he’ll be a Shakespearean actor?

  10. Cinda

    Excellent post! I am so impressed with Nigel AND his parents! Way back when in my undergrad program a professor (who I still consider my greatest mentor) said, “Everyone has behaviors that would be considered a disability depending on where and how often it is exhibited.” Yeah, think about it…actually any behavior! I try to emphasize (to my grad students) that sometimes it is best to help students learn and practice where their particular behavior is appropriate. Good thoughts and good work!!!

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  12. Tammy

    What got us out of scripting with my autistic 20yo was RDI. She still falls into it but now she also knows how to make meaningful conversation about what she is seeing, thinking and doing. Here are two examples of conversation we had yesterday while delivering meals on wheels together:

    Me: [Knock, knock, knock.] “Meals on wheels!” [Long wait]
    Pamela: “I don’t hear anything.”
    Me: “You’re right.” [Knock, knock, knock.] “MEALS ON WHEELS.”
    Pamela: “MEALS ON WHEELS . . . It’s taking too long.”
    Me: “It is. I’m waiting a little longer.”
    Pamela: “It’s too cold.”
    Me: “Brrr . . . it’s chilly. Let’s go.”

    We were talking about the interesting things we saw on our meals on wheels route. Pamela has aphasia so sometimes she speaks in sentences and sometimes in power words:

    Pamela: “Did you see that?”
    Me: “We saw great things.”
    Pamela: “Swell.”
    Me: “The rooster was swell, too.”
    Pamela: “A tape recorder!”
    Me: “And we saw a helicopter.”
    Pamela: “New house.”

    Occasionally, she will have conversations with people outside the family. They are short but she can connect in ways that were impossible before we started RDI.

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  14. Aradia

    Several of my so-called “normal” male colleagues, hard-charging, high-billing attorneys, speak to each other almost entirely in quotes from 1) The Godfather (2) Reservoir Dogs or (3) Animal House. It’s getting so I join in, too. Can you describe the ruckus?

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