Scripting refers to a few behaviors connected to repeating set phrases and words from a pre-planned conversation, either as an autistic person or on behalf of an autistic person. It’s a very common practice since many autistic people find social interactions and situations stressful and prefer to have a ‘game plan or script that allows them to prepare for an unfamiliar or challenging event. It can be a very helpful way to get autistic children familiar with new things. However, it can lead to stilted and repetitive speech patterns, and there’s a little overlap with echolalia in some circumstances.
Why is scripting helpful for autistic people?
First, you must understand that autistic people don’t come with the same ‘user’s manual’ as non-autistic (or allistic) people. While we’re still learning a lot about the different ways that autistic and allistic minds work, there are some basic things that we do know – and they explain a lot. The key point is that autistic people don’t appear to have the same mental filters as allistic people. Allistic people’s minds are quite organized spaces – no one’s mind works the same way. Still, the brain prioritizes and sorts the information it receives in a relatively similar format. While some people are a bit more forgetful than others, and some have sharper senses, this usually falls within a reasonably narrow band of variation, and the brain’s pretty good at organizing and processing everything in a certain way, with a lot of these things happening without people even noticing. This isn’t what’s going on in an autistic mind.
While the allistic mind is very good at sorting, filtering, and generating a relatively organized sense of the world entirely on autopilot, autistic brains do not have this autopilot function. This means that autistic people have to manually do many things that allistic people’s brains do without being aware of them. This means that there’s much more variation in how autistic people operate in the wider world – there’s only so much that you can keep track of at any given time while you’re also bombarded with the whole world without any filters. This is why autistic people can find things that seem very easy to allistic people very difficult – for example, in an allistic mind, a lot of the legwork in interpreting the non-verbal parts of a conversation is being done subconsciously. In contrast, the autistic person has to manually do this and hold up their end of the conversation!
This is why autistic people are often extremely fond of routines and patterns in daily life. When the world is a huge and confusing mess, having a solid point of reference and a way to cling to helps to impose some structure and help autistic folks make sense of the world. Unfortunately, this is also why many autistic folks feel very adrift when they have to undertake something new, even if it’s not that far from what’s familiar. Rather than being able to adapt automatically, they’ve got to sort out the rules of this new situation manually. This is even more nerve-wracking for children since they encounter new scenarios much more frequently than adults, which is where scripting comes in.
Ok, but what exactly is scripting?
Scripting is a cluster of methods that autistic people and those that support them use to help to alleviate the anxiety associated with new situations and people. Essentially, it works by providing a framework for the event – it can be as simple as rehearsing what to say when meeting a new person a few times under your breath, or as complex as a fully planned timetable for an event, with illustrations, rough notes as to how long each stage is likely to take, a guide to other people who’ll be there, and a model conversation, complete with preplanned questions and example answers.
‘Scripting’ most commonly refers to the spoken side of events – it’s called this because the autistic person is more or less working from a prepared ‘script’ to participate in the conversation. There usually isn’t a literal piece of paper with what they’re going to say written down – although sometimes there can be! Most autistic people mentally write the script for what they’re going to say – which may make what they’re saying seem a bit stilted or slightly out-of-sync with the conversation.
This can also lead to autistic people having a rather repetitive pattern of speech, using the same phrases and expressions repeatedly – even when it’s not necessarily the right thing to say. This happens because, at some point, they learned this word or phrase was correct in a certain environment and are applying it to every situation that matches those original parameters (at least in their eyes).
Scripting can lead to these little conversational quirks, but it’s also a very useful pattern of behavior for many autistic people – it makes a stressful or unfamiliar situation more predictable, which may alleviate a great deal of anxiety and thus allow them access to a lot of parts of life that they might not be able to face without this level of preparation.
Scripting also gets an autistic person talking – which is the best way for them to develop their social skills. We all develop socially by interacting and mimicking others – it’s just that for autistic people, it’s a more conscious process. Scripting can be a crucial stepping stone that allows autistic person to build their confidence and get more familiar with how more organic conversation can flow. Over time, they can better understand how these situations work and begin interacting with them in a less structured way.
Many autistic adults still use scripting to some extent, although they might be extremely eloquent. They may still have to engage in conscious planning before a new situation, but they build up a much more flexible and adaptable script and learn how to deliver the more fixed parts naturally!
What are the downsides of scripting?
There are some possible drawbacks to scripting, which are usually more apparent in children than adults. The most challenging of these is when a child starts to use words and phrases in a script without properly understanding it – which limits their ability to build upon the hand and learn how to communicate organically. Think of it like speaking a foreign language: while if you’re able to rattle off a few key phrases, you’ll be able to muddle through in the short term, unless you understand what all the words mean separately and why they’re put together in that order, the second you try to move outside those basic phrases, you’ll immediately trip over yourself and not be able to go any further.
This can lead to seemingly random repetitions of phrases and words with a clear intent to communicate – but without the necessary context to get across what the child wants to say. This overlaps with interactive echolalia, where a child echoes words and phrases to communicate with others rather than ‘using their terms. This cannot be very clear in the short run, but by turning detective, you can usually find the source of the phrase and work out the logic behind how the child is using it – and there’s almost always some logic behind how they’re using the words. By taking the time to understand how they’re using language, you can help your child deconstruct their faulty script and build a more effective one. In cases where a child struggles with speech beyond echolalia, consulting a speech and language therapist is a good step. However, this may not be necessary in milder cases.
There can also be problems with scripting limiting how children interact with others. Some autistic children who use scripting become very confused and agitated when other children don’t follow what they [the autistic child] expect them to do – they struggle to understand that the other child isn’t aware of the script the same way that they are, and therefore might not precisely follow it. This can lead to very ‘bossy’ forms of play or possibly isolation from their peers – if a child isn’t able to handle other children acting in ways they can’t predict, then other children may become less willing to play with them. This doesn’t always occur and is often more pronounced in boys than girls (autistic girls are usually more willing to conform than their male counterparts socially, so they tend to devote more time to developing their social scripts, although they may still be somewhat socially awkward). Still, if it appears to be cropping up, it’s important to have a conversation with your child about the needs and emotions of others. It can be very confusing for autistic children to learn that other people think and experience the world differently, but it’s also a key step in their development. Accepting that others might not always do things the way they want makes them much more likely to thrive socially.
The important thing to remember is that scripting is a relatively normal part of everyone’s social development – for autistic people, it’s just a lot more of a hands-on process. Many issues with scripting, such as difficulty adapting to changes in conversation, repetitive speech, stilted patterns of speech, or even echolalia, will diminish or disappear as an autistic person grows up. Moreover, it’s fine if they never do completely vanish! Even if their speech patterns are never quite ‘normal,’ autistic children and adults have a lot to say, and it’s up to the world to be better at listening.