Erika speaks in scripts, but she thinks and communicates through associations. She finds a similarity in a certain situation, makes a connection, and communicates that connection through her scripts.
Here's an obvious example. I was giving her a shower the other day. I turned off the water, and Erika said, with much animation, "Hey! It stopped raining!" (This script is from a "Little Bear" video.) Well, Erika knows it doesn't rain inside. She knows that the water coming from the shower isn't actually rain. She knows that the water can be turned on and off at will. But the similarities are obvious. The water is similar to rain. The water being turned off is similar to a situation in which it was raining, and it suddenly stopped. And somebody said, "Look! It stopped raining!" I guarantee that she has not seen this particular "Little Bear" video in at least two years, but it doesn't matter. She could recite the whole thing if she wanted to. When she uses the script, it is spoken with exactly the same timing and inflection as the character in the video.
But not all of her communication is this obvious. Context matters. For example, for the longest time, when she was very upset about something, Erika would say, with a very consistent inflection, "Maybe you can drop me off on the moon!" This script is so unique, that I recognized it immediately the first time I heard her say it. It's a Big Bird quote (from the Sesame Street 25th Anniversary DVD), and Big Bird said it when he was visibly upset about something. Big Bird said this line with an inflection that expressed how upset he was about his situation, and Erika was able to replicate the inflection perfectly each time she said it. Without fail, whenever Erika used this phrase, she was extremely upset about something. Like I said, context is important. To Erika, she was using the phrase appropriately. It was actually a very useful phrase between us, since she struggles with spontaneous communication and she cannot tell me "I'm really upset about something." She is, however, making the association about being upset, which prompts her to say "Maybe you can drop me off on the moon." It's like she's created an alternate pathway in her brain, because the spontaneous communication pathway is "broken."
From the previous example, you can see that to understand the intent and meaning of Erika's communication, the script needs to be decoded. My process of decoding goes something like this:
Erika's scripts typically fall into one of these categories:
Why bother to learn Erika's scripts? I was describing Erika's scripts to a good friend one day, to which her response was, "But you have to know SO MUCH!" It's true, the decoding of Erika's scripts is not always a straightforward process. But until Erika is capable of expressing her thoughts and ideas in a more deliberate or spontaneous fashion, this is what we have to work with. Because she does rely so heavily on scripts, this is all the more reason why we need to be giving her appropriate scripts through the use of assistive technology (Proloquo2Go on the iPad). There is no better way that I know of to leverage her echolalia to work to her advantage.
The consequences of not being understood are too great. Every person seeks to be understood. In the absence of the ability to communicate verbally, behavior equals communication. When you see a nonverbal person "acting out" (read: not acting in a socially-acceptable manner), the chances are very high that the behavior is their only means of communicating something. To the teacher or observer who thinks the non-verbal child is acting "naughty:" that behavior is communication. The inability to communicate in the traditional way is that person's disability. Any special ed teacher who doesn't "get" the difference between "naughty" and "disability" ought to reconsider his/her choice of profession.
A few months ago, during the bus ride home from school, Erika had an "incident" which was reported to me with much drama and in great detail by the bus driver's assistant. One minute, Erika was calm and quiet, as she normally is, when suddenly she began to brush her clothes frantically, while also making repeated screaming noises. She tried to get out of her seat, and, when she was not being permitted to change seats, she tried to open the window. Erika was ansty and unsettled, and continued brushing her shirt and lap with her hands. She did not calm down until a few minutes had passed. Erika was calm by the time she arrived at home, and when the assistant described Erika's behavior to me, I replied, "Well, if the change in behavior happened that suddenly, it sounds like maybe she saw a spider, or there was a fly buzzing by her or something. Maybe that's why she was brushing her clothes, wanting to get out of her seat, and trying to open the window." The assistant hadn't seen any spider or bug, of course. I said to her, "Did you ask her any questions?"
The assistant replied, "Yes, I kept asking her, 'Do you see the flower? Look at the flower outside. Do you see the flower?'"
Apparently, the well-meaning assistant was using this question to try to distract Erika from whatever the real problem was. What I wanted to tell her is this: "If Big Bird were here right now, he'd tell you that 'Asking questions is a good way to find things out.' " (See Big Bird video.)
Simple questions like, "Is there a bug? Is there a spider?" would have elicited an appropriate response from Erika ("Yes, there's a spider!"), and helped to diffuse the situation. Erika's ability to understand others is much better than her ability communicate spontaneously. Erika was not acting in a crazy or irrational manner. Her behavior communicated exactly what was going on. Even us verbal folks respond in exactly the same way if there's something crawling on us or buzzing around us.
Thank you, Big Bird, for pointing out in every episode of Journey to Ernie what seems very obvious, but is often forgotten. Questions really are a good way to find things out. In fact, they are essential on this Journey to Erika as well.