Children with Asperger Syndrome are said to have abnormal language development. ‘Echolalia’ and ‘hyperlexia’ are two ‘symptoms’ that are often mentioned. ‘Echolalia’ means repeating what another person is saying, with no evidence of comprehension, and ‘hyperlexia’ means reading exceptionally well and fluently for one’s age, but with poor comprehension.
Well, although I remember learning to read quite clearly (and I did indeed have a reading age which was way above my chronological age) it’s hard to remember learning language as a whole. I don’t remember learning to understand and speak spoken language, although I remember specific incidents of learning specific words and phrases. My mind has developed now – as an adult I understand what I read and hear, so long as I focus.
So I’ve decided to put myself into the situation of learning language from scratch all over again, by starting to teach myself Italian. Of course it’s different – I already know English (and bits of other languages) so I’m not learning the concept of language from scratch. I understand Italian in the context of what I know of English. And I’m learning Italian in England, where I’m surrounded by English speaking people, so of course it’s artificial. But I’m teaching myself by exposing myself to the spoken and written language, through podcasts and Italian literature, and seeing how much I absorb. I’ve read the pronunciation rules, which are very straightforward compared with English. And I do a few Italian lessons online, or from CDs, but the vocabulary I have so far is very basic.
And here is what I find. When listening to Italian podlasts, I find myself repeating various phrases. I have no idea what they mean – which is quite normal at this point, I think, because I doubt anyone would start understanding a language just by listening. But I automatically repeat the words, because I like the feel of them on my tongue, and the sound I make. I actually have no desire, at this point, to understand. I just like the sound and the feel. I also listen to Italian songs and memorise them, with no comprehension. I just like to sing them. With the Italian novels, I read them aloud. I have got the hang of Italian pronunciation, on the whole, and I love to read Italian out loud and to increase my fluency. Again, I have no idea what any of it means, other than the occasional word, but that is absolutely fine. At this point it would be too confusing to also be grappling with comprehension, because my brain can only focus on one thing at a time.
And so it seems to me that actually ‘echolalia’ and ‘hyperlexia’ are the most logical, efficient ways for an autistic person to learn language. We only process things one at a time. We don’t multitask. And we start from the details and move up to the big picture. Meaning is the big picture. Any ‘between the lines’ meaning is even bigger picture. The actual shapes of the words themselves – the consonants, the vowels, the patterns – this is detail, and this is where we start. While neurotypical people start with the big picture and move towards the details, people on the autistic spectrum work the other way around.
Temple Grandin points out that driving a car is only multitasking when you are learning to drive. Once you’ve learnt, then it’s automatic, and you can focus on the road. And I think the same is true of language to some extent. With the English language, when I read, I don’t have to sound out each phoneme as I did as a very young child. I recognise words automatically. Listening can be harder, because of all the variance in how how people produce words in different contexts and with different accents, but when I focus, I can do it. I don’t have to analyse each phoneme to grasp the word, nor do I have to analyse each word to hear meaning. Most of it is automatic, and what my brain actively work on is the overall meaning, and any meaning in between the lines (as this is not automatic). But with Italian, nothing is automatic yet, and so I can only concentrate on one aspect at a time. I hope, as I continue to learn, that the details will become automatic, and I will eventually learn to grasp the big picture and understand what I read and hear.
So I don’t believe that hyperlexia and echolalia are, in themselves, negative things. They are stages in language development for many people with Asperger Syndrome, and essential stages, I believe. It’s possible to get stuck in a stage – and particularly for people on the autistic spectrum, for whom switching from one thing to another is very difficult – but that doesn’t mean that the stage itself is bad. In fact, I’d speculate that trying to hurry a child out of a stage, by making him focus on comprehension before he’s ready, could be harmful.
So I will continue learning Italian by listening, repeating and reading without comprehension, and I will observe what happens.