4 "What-ifs" to Change Our Perspective about “Scripting”

I recently heard about a child’s goal in their IEP, to reduce and eliminate “scripting” by providing a negative reinforcement of sorts. I’m sure this goal exists because the child tends to use language that is not considered appropriate to the current task at hand, is viewed as not functional, and is considered socially unacceptable. I understand how uncomfortable for everyone else it might be to hear a line repeated over and over, out of context, and that is seemingly meaningless. We don’t know how to respond, and it appears as if the child is in his own little world, happily reciting words as he spins around repetitively, tuning out the conversational attempts around him. We think, “how is this helping the child?”... and “this must be stopped.”

Let me attempt to change your perspective a bit, and take this out of the context of our own need for comfort, and our own understanding of how spoken language should work. I have one request before I do so... to have an open mind. Because things aren’t always as they appear on the outside, but often much more intricate and meaningful than we realize.

WHAT IF....?

1. What if a child’s scripting language is his only way of communicating how he feels?

2. What if the script actually relates to the current interaction somehow, and we’ve missed it?

3. What if the script is his way of initiating conversation?

4. What if the script serves a purpose?

Scripting a line from a familiar show or book, might be an expression of a feeling or emotion. When the child was first exposed to this line, he may have associated it with a specific emotion or multiple emotions. For example, when the line was spoken on a t.v. show, it may have been in the context of something happy, exciting, fun...and maybe the child felt those feelings when hearing the line. He liked the way it felt. He remembers others around him laughing and smiling at that very moment. But maybe he couldn’t imitate those feelings himself. He did not know how to replicate those emotions in any other way but to repeat the line or script over and over again. And so, when something happens that makes him uncomfortable, or when things are just unstructured, or boring perhaps, maybe the only thing he knows how to do is to script what he remembers brought happy smiles and content feelings. So, maybe the script actually relates to the current happenings, and we’ve missed it!

Our children on the spectrum often have difficulty initiating communication. Scripting a familiar line he heard in a book or on a video, may just be his way of starting a conversation. I know this sounds far reaching, but let’s think for a minute about his level of communication. He may be only at the requesting level; asking for help, requesting a food or activity, etc. So, what if he wants to communicate that he’s bored, uncomfortable, that he’s missing his mom, or is really excited about something? Like I mentioned before, if he associates a line from a TV show with any of these feelings, he may be using that script not only to express those emotions but to start a conversation about what is happening. Can we respond then in a way to keep the conversation rolling? Can we model what might be an appropriate response if we can guess at what he's trying to communicate?

If we change our perspective a bit, and think about the scripting behavior as a means to communicate ones feelings/emotions, start an interaction, respond to the current setting/task, or relate to another person... maybe we can find ways to use the scripting and to help the child mold those scripts into functional, relational, and reciprocal communication. Rather than eliminating the scripting behavior, can we put some effort into finding out where the script originated? Often a child's parents know exactly where the script is coming from, and can explain what made the script interesting enough to their child, for him to then memorize it and want to repeat it obsessively. Sometimes, parents can't explain it at all. But we can all try to join the child in that world and try to understand what makes that line so exciting. What purpose is it serving? Does it help calm him? Is it an expression of frustration? Does it make him or others smile or respond somehow? Does it relate to the current task in any way?

What do you think would happen if you figured out where the script came from, what purpose it is serving for him, and how it makes him feel?

Do you think it might help us to relate to the child more? It might actually help him feel like we understand him.

While working with one of my young clients one day, who used scripting quite often at the start of our sessions together, I asked the parents, "what is that from? Is it from a show he likes?". They quickly explained, the script was coming from his favorite show on t.v., from a part in the story he liked to play over and over. He never watched the whole show, didn't seem to understand the point of the story, but for some reason, he really liked this line the character said. It made him laugh every time. His parents further explained, that he rarely laughs at anything a person says to him, so they loved hearing him respond this way, but didn't know what to do with the behavior. It embarrassed them a bit out in public, because people would often look at their son weirdly when hearing him repeat this line.

With his parents’ help, I was able to show their son how to expand on his script, how to act out the script in playful ways using various characters (sometimes his parents, sometimes dinosaur toys), and how to expand and change his script in different ways. We were able to use his favorite script playfully, increase flexibility, acting out a variety of emotions, and most of all to join him right where he was with empathy and relating. He became playful, while expanding his language, and his parents were finally part of his world. All by engaging in his scripting! Imagine if we had instead tried to ignore the scripting behavior or extinguish it. We might have missed out on a wonderful window into his world!

For more ideas about how to engage in your child‘s or client‘s scripts, or stimming behaviors, please don‘t hesitate to contact me:

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