Children with autism have a lot of problems with communication.
Some children with autism can’t speak at all. When my son Michael attended the AEIOU* many of the children could not speak. Some children will grow up and never speak a word their whole lives. They may learn how to communicate their needs with sign language, picture-exchange systems (PECs) or assistive communication devices (e.g., computers that speak).
Some children with autism have language delays but develop speech as they grow older. Some children repeat words and phrases (TV commercials, movie scripts, parental commands) in a parrot-like fashion, with no real understanding of the meaning. This is called echolalia.
Michael used echolalia when he was younger. If we asked him a question he would immediately repeat the words. He had no understanding of what the words meant but he knew a response was required, so he would oblige us with our own words.
Like many children with autism he would watch his favourite videos (e.g., Nemo, Spot the Dog, The Wiggles) over and over again. He would repeat large slabs of the story verbatim, to himself, when he was stressed.
Michael would repeat entire story books after I’d read them to him once or twice. He memorised every Hairy Maclary story book and he would ‘read’ the books aloud to himself while turning the pages at the correct spots. He couldn’t read at that age – he wasn’t even looking at the words. I don’t know how he did it! This uncanny ability disappeared as he developed comprehension of speech.
As Michael got older and began to understand what the words meant he would use phrases from movies in the correct context when asked a question. Clever boy! If you hadn’t watched the movie you would never have picked up on what he was doing. If you listened carefully you could tell he was exactly repeating a phrase from some show that he’d watched. He would use the correct accents and intonations. He is a great mimic.
When Michael was 3 he didn’t know how to call me mummy and maybe he didn’t know that was my name. I had heard him use the word as part of a repetitive script from some show but he never called out ‘mummy’ if he wanted something from me. He would just cry with frustration when his needs weren’t met. I became a mind reader.
One great day when he was 3 and a quarter he called me mummy.
Funny story: We were at an indoor playground one day and Michael was calling out to me ‘mummy’. Then he noticed that some of the other children were using the word mummy. He was surprised, but had the solution, he called me ‘Gabrielle’. I explained that other kids also used the word mummy. It is very confusing if you think about it. Lucky he went back to calling me mummy as I was just getting used to it.
Michael is now 9 and appears most of the time to speak like other children his age (he can read at the level of a 10 year old). This would not have been possible without the help he has received from speech pathologists (thanks particularly to Leith Johnston).
He still has some communication issues. He still has difficulty processing speech and it helps if people slow down and speak clearly to him. When he is stressed or nervous he will mumble and whisper while looking down at his feet. He has difficulty with the reciprocity of speech – the ability to take turns and share in conversation. He tends to speak about his special interests and he will interrupt conversations to ask questions about the solar system. But if Michael is calm, relaxed and in a happy environment his speech normalises and he is just like any other boy.
* AEIOU is an intensive early intervention centre in Queensland for children 3-6 years old