Understanding Autism--Echolalia II
Bill Long 8/20/06
From Greek Myth to Modern Scholarship
The thesis of this article is that there are three items from the myth of Echo and Narcissus and at least one statement from one of the leading scholars of autism in our day, Dr. Uta Frith, which lend support to the thesis that an autistic echolalia is anything but meaningless.
One other idea to mention in passing is that the myth of Echo and Narcissus is usually mentioned today only to focus on Narcissus and not Echo. As a matter of fact, Narcissus has given his name not only to a flower but to a developmental disorder: Narcissistic Personality Disorder ("NPD"). Though the "Narcissus" part of the disorder goes back to Freud, that great myth-lover and myth-maker, the term NPD was only coined by Professor Kohut in 1971 and the disorder accepted by mainstream psychology in the DSM-III of 1980. Consideration of this disorder is not relevant for our purposes; I only mention its existence to show that I am reading the myth here for its insight into "Echo" rather than "Narcissus."
Combing the Myth
Three ideas from the myth that are worthy of mention are: (1) Echo's affliction is said to come from the gods, even though it is sent to her as a punishment rather than a gift; (2) Echo's words, which only can repeat the last words of the primary speaker, come out of a fulness rather than a dearth of emotion; and (3) Echo's words, when read in conjuction with Narcissus', can easily be construed as a conversation in which soul longs for soul. Let me delve further in to (2) and (3).
Autistic persons, 75% of whom engage in a form of echolalia (as did Hugh Blair, as I show in this essay), speak this way for reasons not universally agreed-upon by scholars. Indeed, many probably agree with the implicit OED assessment of echolalia found in its definition of the term: "the meaningless repetition of words and phrases." But in mentioning another point, Professor Frith has this to say about echolalia:
"Normal children mainly echo speech that is just above their grammatical competence, and they often modify what they echo, but this may not be the case for autistic children" (Autism: Explaining the Enigma; 2d Ed., 2003), 123.
Extrapolating from Frith's statement and the world of the myth, I would like to argue that the autistic echolalic is not empty but full of emotions and that his echoing of speech is an attempt to try to speak "above their grammatical competence." In other words, the autistic person is, as it were, bombarded with too many sensations, has too few resources to filter these emotions, and responds echolaically because he cannot find the words to express these feelings. The "best" he can do is imitate words spoken to him--words that are far more eloquent that he can come up with at the moment.
Illustrating the Thesis
I try to reinforce my point that echolalia really is "striving speech" by relating my approach to learning languages--an approach which has seemingly made me far more successful at learning to speak other languages than some of my peers. I learn languages by memorizing sentences spoken or written correctly. Of course, there is considerable grammatical work to be done, forms of nouns and verbs to master, word order to understand, but basically the most productive thing I do in learning language is to memorize sentences. Often I will write down an "off the cuff" sentence that the teacher speaks in the language, because I want to take it home, dissect it, replace some of the words with other words I know, and thereby "build" additional sentences I can speak in the new tongue. But I can really do no better at the moment the teacher has spoken the sentence than to repeat it. It is as if the sentence spoken by the teacher, even if not elegant, is a piece of gold thrown my way, a gift more valuable than a new car or boat. I know that if only I can memorize it, and then another, and then build on these sentences, I can speak the language. My great longing is an echolalic longing (echolalic is not in the OED, but you know perfectly what I mean...). I have to repeat my teacher, and then, some day, I hope to be free.
But after I repeat a sentence, I "regress," because I have "risen" to a new level by learning a new sentence. I retreat to my easier and stereotypical phrases until I rise to the occasion of memorizing another sentence the teacher speaks.
Putting It All Together
The story of Hugh Blair of Borgue, told here, also can be read from the perspective of my third point about the Echo and Narcissus myth. Recall that when Echo's "answers" are strung together or put next to Narcissus', we can derive sense, and even profound sense, from these answers. The problem is that there is a lot of "missed communication" going on, even though we, the "omnipotent" reader can see that Echo is not merely repeating what is said to her but she is expressing her deep emotions, her love for Narcissus. Armed with this insight, the answers Hugh Blair gave to the judges in his mental competency hearing can take on new light. Especially interesting to me is the exchange where Hugh is asked three times who made him. He answers, in turn, "Father," "Son," and "Holy Ghost." When we combine this with one of Hugh's characteristic activities--to go to every funeral in the small town--we are tempted to say that, from the langauge of theology, God has worked his way into the soul of Hugh Blair, even if he didn't strike clergy and lay alike as having a "sense of God."
That echolalia is "striving speech," as I have called it, is supported by the notion that most autistic individuals "grow out" of it to a great extent. Sooner or later they "catch on" to the language. that is, they learn it in such a way that it can become a vehicle, however inadequate, to express some of their thoughts and feelings. The "stage" of echolalia can then be perceived not as a time of uttering meaningless gibberish, as the OED would have it, but as a time of trying to learn how to frame sentences. But the autistic sufferer "realizes" (probably not consciously) that he can, at this point, only parrot, at best, the statements said to him. He is being challenged to speak "above" his level. And, in general, he will eventually rise to that challenge.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long