Echolalia and hyperlexia as stages of language development

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.

Auditory processing issues (part 1)

At church a couple of Sundays ago, a visiting preacher was talking about how some people only think about God once a week when they go to church. Then he added something that sounded like ‘If you’re tall’.

I spent the next few minutes searching my brain for reasons why a person’s height would make them more likely to go to church and think about God, and then finally realised there were no reasons and that this made no sense at all.

So I then searched for the nearest alternative and wondered if the preacher could have said ‘if at all’. That would make sense in the overall context of what he was saying. And ‘if you’re tall’ and ‘if at all’ sound pretty similar in a non-rhotic English accent, other than the ‘y’ sound. I have a good ear for detail and the preacher had clearly raised his tongue in his mouth after the word ‘if’. But I know that sometimes people’s tongues are not quite in the right place when they say a word – sometimes they were going to say something else and then switched, for instance, or they aren’t paying attention.

So, after my mind had been through that careful analysis, involving many vivid images, from the image of tall people going to church to the image of the phonology lectures at college in which I learnt about how people’s tongues are not necessarily in the expected place for the word they are saying,  I concluded that the preacher must have said ‘if at all’. But by this time I’d missed the next few minutes of what he’d said – which brought to my mind many vivid images of my primary school days and the frustration of trying to listen to a story and missing parts and then having no idea what the story was about.

‘Auditory processing disorder’ is something that is recognised as often being part of ASDs, but the concept of auditory processing seems to be still incredibly vague. So much so that I’m not even sure if what I experience actually falls into the diagnositic category of ‘auditory processing disorder’. However, I know it is about processing and not about hearing. As a child, I was suspected of having a hearing impairment and was sent to have my hearing checked, with the results that my hearing was fine. I’ve also had a hearing test a couple of years ago, and it’s still fine. However, the fact remains that understanding what people are saying requires a great deal of concentration from me.

So I’m going to try to explain exactly what I experience when I am listening to someone speak, and how this has developed over the years.

One thing I’m aware of is that if I don’t concentrate when a person is talking, all I hear is their accent, which I automatically analyse in great detail in my mind. I find myself subvocalising sounds they make, in order to get a sense of how the sounds they use correspond with the sounds I use. That is, I repeat words they say, but silently, trying to keep my mouth closed (so that people don’t think me weird!). My tongue moves around trying to get a sense of how they say the word. Not for every word they say, but only if it’s a word spoken in a way I find unusual in accent, stress or intonation.

If am alone with the TV on, and similarly not concentrating, I repeat the words I hear on TV out loud, because I have no reason to hide my behaviour when alone. I believe this behaviour would be classified as ‘echolalia’, which is sometimes seen as meaningless repetition, but for me it has the useful purpose of enabling me to process how words can sound in different accents. Feeling the sounds in my mouth helps me to map the sounds onto the sounds I use, and to thus make links between what I hear and what it means.

As a child, I was taught the alphabet phonically. I learnt ah, buh, cuh, duh, eh, fuh, guh, etc. I learnt an exact sound for each letter. I also learnt how the sounds could be changed by the ‘magic e’ – so that ‘bit’ becomes ‘bite’. I learnt how each word was pronounced by listening and repeating. I learnt how different letter combinations produce different sounds. I learnt everything exactly and precisely.

I became an advanced reader for my age – I had a reading age of 12 when I was 6. But reading was easy compared with listening, because written words are consistent. Spelling rules may be inconsistent, but as long as you learn the correct spelling for each word then you will always recognise that word when it is in print. However, the same cannot be said for words that are spoken.

I shall illustrate what I mean. At four years old, I had a plastic doll with a string attached to her. I pulled the string and she said something that I didn’t understand.  I listened again and again and decided she must be saying ‘Excuse me, I’m pridable’. I had never heard the word ‘pridable’ but it made sense as a word, because I knew ‘pride’ was a word, and I observed ‘able’ being added to words in general.

One day I used the word ‘pridable’, and my mother informed me that it wasn’t a word. I told her that my doll said it. I got my doll to prove it and I pulled the string and the doll spoke.

‘She says “Carry me, I’m portable,”‘ said my mother.

‘No she doesn’t,’ I pulled her string again.  ‘There is a “ruh” and a “duh”. It’s “pridable.”‘

‘She has an American accent,’ said my mother. ‘Americans say it like that.’

This was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I didn’t even know what an American was, but why on earth would anyone change a ‘t’ to a ‘d’, or add an ‘r’ that wasn’t there? So I simply disbelieved my mother. Besides, I’d never heard the word ‘portable’ before, and it sounded like far too difficult a word for a little doll to say. I didn’t know the word ‘portable’, so how could my doll possibly know it? And how could my doll have an American accent when I’d never heard of America?

The trouble with learning the sounds of your language is that you learn them in a specific accent. As soon as someone with a different accent speaks, many of the sounds change, so you are hearing a different word. This is where ‘top down processing’ helps people – they get an overall sense of what is being said and then fill in the details as they go along. But if you work from ‘bottom up’, focusing first on the details, you easily get lost. And this is where it’s harder for children on the autistic spectrum. Even when someone speaks in the same accent as you, they will not always be consistent in their pronunciation of different sounds.

People often talk about lines from songs that they misheard as a child. Songs lyrics are misheard because children don’t yet have a wide enough understanding of the world, or of language, to understand what is being said, so they approximate to something that makes sense to them. Also, songs don’t have the same rhythm and context as speech – the lyrics follow the rhythm of the music, and lack the environmental context that a conversation has. So understanding spoken language is not just about hearing the details of the sounds – it’s about linking what you hear to world knowledge and context.

While an adult on the autistic spectrum may have an in-depth understanding of the world, the ‘top-down’ linking of everything they hear to this world knowledge simply doesn’t happen automatically, because we process things from ‘bottom up’ – from the details. Similarly, the top-down linking to context doesn’t happen automatically. For instance, in context, obviously the preacher was saying ‘if at all’ rather than ‘if you’re tall’, but my brain latched onto the details of the sounds, and only upon conscious analysis did it occur to me to find a more suitable meaning.

Despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that I found accents such a challenge, I became aware of and fascinated by the existence of accents quite early as a child. By repeating them, I got a sense of how they worked and how their sounds corresponded with my sounds, but it always required an effort, and sometimes I had to repeat something many times before I understood what word it was supposed to be.

At eleven years old I devised a list of all the ways that different people pronounced my name, which is Gail. My Grandad, who had a Northern Irish accent, said is as ‘Geeyul’. My Nana, who had a Yorkshire accent, used a vowel that sounded like ‘air’ (remember that the ‘r’ is unspoken in an English accent, so she didn’t add a consonant). My maths teacher, who was Welsh, said my name in a way that made it only have one syllable, because she didn’t use a syllabic dark ‘l’.

I used to get very confused as to how many syllables my name had, because it was different depending on who said it. Sometimes there was a definite ‘y’ in there (gai-yull) and there were two distinct syllables. Sometimes it seemed to be not quite two syllables, but more than one. And other times, when spoken by Welsh people, it definitely only had one syllable.

So, if my short simple name caused me so much confusion, and required such analysis, you can imagine how confused I got by spoken language as a whole, and how much effort went into analysing the sounds of various accents. As an adult, because of all this analysis, I can map the phoneme structure of many accents in my mind, but even so, I have to concentrate to hear the meaning of what people are saying, and it is easy to lose the thread of what someone is saying if there are many distractions or if it is complicated. When I watch DVDs I always activate the subtitles, because seeing the words written down is an enormous help in processing. Unfortunately, though, real life doesn’t come with subtitles, so it requires immense concentration!