Scripting in kids is very common with autism. But what should we do when it interferes with learning new skills? Should you stop it, or let it go because it may be communicative?
I think we all can relate to scripting. Most of the kids that we see are scripting from their favorite TV or movie. And we kind of do the same thing. We all have our favorite TV shows and movies that we can repeat famous lines from. It makes you laugh every time and the lines become meaningful to you. They remind you of something funny or dramatic or a time in your life when you are watching that show and enjoying it. I still will say things like, “You can’t handle the truth!”
What is Scripting?
So, really, what is scripting in kids? Or scripting in adults? Sometimes it’s more than a movie line or a youtube episode. Sometimes it’s mumbling incomprehensible words in a low voice. The key message though, is that it’s meaningful. As ABA professionals, as parents, we don’t always know the meaning, but the scripting does typically serve a function in some way.
Scripts can be part of natural language development. Many kids with autism learn language in chunks, also known as scripts. They may use phrases seemingly out of context for communication but it is purposeful and part of their language development.
It is important to remember that for most of our learners who script, the main function is communication. They are trying to tell us something, whether the context makes sense or not.
I have a student who really, really loves summer camp. She sings the summer camp song all year long and it’s totally out of context. It’s not relevant for her to be cheering the summer camp song. But what she’s trying to say is “I’m really excited!” Or she sees someone who works in a summer camp, and she starts to sing the summer camp song, meaning, “I’m happy to see you.” So a lot of times this scripting is used for communication, it’s trying to tell us something.
Is Scripting a Problem?
This is a controversial topic. Some would say that because scripting is communication, and since many students with autism are gestalt learners, scripting is how kids learn and should never be classified as a “problem”. Others would say that scripting can be problematic when it interferes with learning. For instance, we have some students whose scripting just has no end. These individuals just get so lost in their head and are not able to refocus to learn new skills. Scripting can also cause difficulty if we try to interact with kids while they’re scripting and they become aggressive because they don’t want to be interrupted. During these times, scripting can really interfere with people’s lives.
When deciding whether to address scripting, a proper cost-benefit analysis should be in place. What could the student be potentially missing out on? What skills could they be learning? What is at risk if it is addressed? We rarely target scripting as a “behavior” for reduction but instead we might focus on building up other skills such as attending or engagement.
Determine the Function for Why There is Scripting in Kids
First things first. Remember, first and foremost, scripting is communication of some kind. But there are other purposes for scripting as well when it’s not language acquisition that may not serve the learner. Let’s gather some data!
When is it happening? Look at it over a few days and try to see what time of day it happens, what’s going on during that time. How much of the day is this happening for. Really gather as much data as you can on this for a couple of days. Once you’ve collected the data, you can analyze it to determine what your student is trying to communicate and what function does the scripting serve.
Sometimes it really looks like escape. As soon as you present a demand, the scripting starts. If that is the case, then we can use what we know about escape-related behavior and teach some alternatives. We can model what the client might be trying to say with the script, “You don’t want to do this work”. But then, depending on the situation, you might reinforce that request for escape or you might be teaching tolerance of the demand instead.
Remember, we teach all of our learners to communicate, but we also have to teach them that sometimes the answer is “no”.
Sometimes scripting occurs when kids are bored, or they’re not engaged, and they just don’t know how to interact or play with other toys. They start scripting because it’s entertaining for them. And sometimes the scripting is their way of trying to tell you that they’re frustrated, or they need help, or they’re not understanding the expectations. In this case, model what they might be trying to say (eg: “I’m bored”, “I need help”) and try to increase leisure skills and look at adding more structure to the day.
Sometimes the function is very clear cut. Other times the function isn’t as distinct. It seems to happen all the time. Then we assume that it’s automatic reinforcement. If it’s automatic reinforcement, then we need to look further and ask what about the scripting does the student like? Is it the noise in the background (you could try playing music instead)? Is it them trying to play around with their sounds (like toddlers babble)? Is it that they are not engaged? Or that they don’t know how to play with toys, or don’t like toys? Are they bored so they are talking to themselves (I do this!)?
How to Stop Scripting In Kids
The question should be – Do we stop scripting in kids? The answer is probably no, scripting is not itself targeting as a behavior reduction goal. Instead, examine the function and what they are trying to communicate. Then increase some other skills like play and leisure skills, asking for a break, expressing excitement, etc.
Sometimes individuals will script because they like that background noise. If this is the case, just playing some soft music in the background, even if it’s just classical music, could be enough to fill that void.
If we are working with a child whose scripting seems to be automatic, we may give them a time and place to do the scripting on their break.
If learners are scripting to escape work or interacting with you, examine that further. Are you paired enough with reinforcement? How do you make yourself more fun? How do you make the learning more fun? Is what you are teaching them appropriate to their level? Can you give them other forms of communication to say that it’s too hard or that they need a break?
So, to summarize, remember scripting in kids (and adults) is communication of some kind. As professionals, it is our job to find out the function of the scripting and really listen to what they are trying to tell us. Ask yourself, “Is it serving a purpose for the learner or getting in the way of their learning?” If you’re unsure, make sure to consult with a speech pathologist!
Get your free ABC datasheet to determine the function of scripting by clicking the link below.