Last night before bed E came clomping into the kitchen in his pajamas, wearing Daddy’s sneakers. I grabbed my phone and snapped a picture just fast enough to capture him looking right at me with his amazing smile. It was a priceless moment.
I chuckled and said, “E, look at what big feet you have! You look just like Daddy!”
He responded by launching into what at first sounded like a conversation with me, stopping me in my tracks as I heard the sheer number of words he was using. But after a minute I realized he was repeating nearly verbatim a conversation Daddy had with him a few nights ago when trying to explain his job as a police officer.
“My job keep people safe,” E said. “Keep you safe. I catch bad guys. Bad guys go to jail. Wheee, wheee, wheee,” he yelled, trying to imitate the sound of a siren.
This has been happening more often lately, and when I try to engage E during these “conversations” it’s like he can’t hear me. I can never seem to break through.
It’s been weighing on me heavily, so today at E’s occupational therapy session I came loaded with questions for the therapist. I think she’s used to it at this point, and always ready to offer her insight.
As soon as Miss K leads us to the first room we’ll be working in and gets E started on his motor skills task, I launch into my questions.
“Miss K, I really need to ask you about something. E has been using a lot more words lately, having what seems like conversations with himself. I was getting excited about it because I was encouraged to hear him using new words, but the more I’ve listened it seems that he is simply repeating words he’s heard in a conversation at home, on a cartoon, or in a television ad. But he’s repeating them verbatim! What is that? Do you think he’s actually comprehending the words he’s using?”
Miss K looks up knowingly and says, “That could be echolalia. It’s a form of language imitation and is fairly common in kids on the spectrum, since most struggle with verbal skills. Since many can’t form their own unique, spontaneous verbal responses, this verbal imitation – echolalia – becomes a coping mechanism.”
Almost on cue, E begins repeating lines from a recent Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episode as he stacks wooden blocks into a tower.
“This is what I mean,” I say. “He’s recounting exact lines from his favorite cartoon, but watch what he does when I try to talk with him about it.”
I lean toward E, “Buddy, are you talking about Mickey Mouse?”
His cartoon monologue continues, uninterrupted, as if he’s not hearing me.
“E, did you hear Mommy?” I say, trying to engage him. “Are you telling me about what Mickey Mouse did on TV?”
Again, his monologue continues uninterrupted. I look at Miss K with questioning eyes.
“Yes,” she says. “That’s echolalia. But listen, this is his way of coping right now with his inability to communicate original words to you. The good news is that he’s actually practicing language skills by repeating all of these words. Just look at how smart he is that he remembers all of this verbatim! I don’t even remember what I had for dinner last night,” she laughs, breaking my tension.
“E is going to learn language very differently from other children,” she continues. “Not better or worse, just differently, because his brain is wired to learn differently than what people call ‘typical development’. But let me tell you, he is incredibly smart. He has the capacity to eventually be able to form unique words and respond to questions. We’re working on that. And the echolalia does not typically last forever, not in kids at his functional level. It’s just his coping mechanism right now.”
Here I go again, choking back tears as I listen to her. She must think I’m a complete baby with all of the crying I do at his sessions!
“I’m sorry I keep getting so emotional,” I say as I grab a tissue from the table nearby. “This is all just so much, and so new still, and every new thing sends me right back onto the emotional rollercoaster that our life seems to always be these days.”
“It’s okay,” she assures me. “This is totally normal. I know it’s a lot, and it will get easier. That’s why I always want to help you understand the ‘why’ behind what he’s doing, because there IS a reason and purpose for why he’s acting certain ways or engaging in certain behaviors. Often it’s because his mind is trying to find a work-around for his developmental challenges or overstimulation, so it really is just a sign of his genius.”
Genius. My son has genius.
“Yes,” I think, “because he was made perfectly by a Creator with genius so great I can’t wrap my head around it. And He embedded the DNA of Himself – a genius – in my son! Why haven’t I thought of this before?” I chide myself.
My son IS a genius.
A genius with a mission, a divine purpose. With lives to impact. A world to change.
The capacity is in him.
I resolve at this moment to embrace, encourage and empower the genius in him. To feed and nourish the genius in him like lives depend on it.
Because they may.