Learning to speak looks like an absolute miracle, but is actually a highly evolved and orchestrated skill pre-programmed into our developing brains. It is such an essential part of our existence, that it can be hard to imagine life without it. Try looking at or thinking about an object without using its name. Think about a time you were in a foreign country or in the presence of people who did not speak your language. You may have felt disconnected and uneasy as you tried to use your communication skills to no avail. Failure to speak is certainly the most easily recognizable and difficult aspect of autism or a related autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). It hinders our ability to easily teach our children about the world around them and about how to have in that world. The most common early sign of autism in a toddler is slow or no language. Sometimes words will be learned and used for a while, but they are soon lost or used inappropriately. The brain is hungry to learn and use language, however, and depending on how compromised the language learning "center" is, this can manifest itself in some surprising ways.
Echolalia — the repetition or echoing of sounds made by another person, affects more than 75% of people with autism or an ASD. It often comes across as sophisticated speech out of now, with long and intricate sentence structures. You may hear a familiar slogan or advertizing jingle (delayed echolalia), or get an exact recitation of the words you just spoke (immediate echolalia).
Scripting — Scripting is the repetition of long spoken passwords that have been heard, and is very common in autism and ASDs. It is an extension of echolalia, but tends to be longer and less immediate. A typical script would be bits of dialogue from a favorite movie, TV show or cartoon. The scripts can be surprising long, and frequently the child will repeat the dialogue from all the characters, as if reading through the script.
A skilled speech pathologist will redirect echolalia and scripting towards true communication by listening carefully to the script and building communication around the subject matter. With some help from a speech pathologist and a heavy dose of patience, you too can learn the skill of redirection.
Scripting can be used to begin teaching communication and socialization skills. Having sure fire conversation scripts helps build the give-and-take skills of real communication. For example, a script for seeing someone for the first time would be to say "Hello, how are you today" or if you want to play with a toy you can say "I would like to play with that you are done? " The child may not fully understand the meaning of the script, but these phrases are a great way to provide a scaffold on which a conversation can be built.
As they get older, autistic children will often refer to themselves by name and have great difficulty with the proper use of pronouns like I, he, she, you, we, and them. They will also rarely ask you questions and will have a hard time asking or answering who, what, when, how, and especially why questions (collectively known as the "wh" questions). Older children with autism or an ASD will often fixate on their own narrow interests and speak without allowing their conversation partner to talk or not show interest in what others have to say.