“There is a specific developmental process in the speaking habits of children with autism. When the child becomes verbal, the child may talk to himself, and he moves to repeat the same question, and then it expands to engaging in self-interested conversations. Then it moves to engage in active dialogue with other people’s interests, and so on. So instead of looking at self-talk and repeating the same question as a pathological phenomenon, we should recognize that this is a very reasonable process and a necessary process for children with Asperger’s and mild autism to develop social communication skills.
As positive as this may sound, there is a problem here. Kids who talk to themselves a lot don’t communicate well, so if this behavior becomes ingrained, it will hinder the child’s later development. In some ways, it’s slightly better than self-talking because at least there’s a ping-pong of conversation. Still, parents are exposed to extreme fatigue if the conversation is self-focused and the same questions are asked repeatedly. If parents don’t have the right attitude about this problem, it will be challenging work for them and a concern for their child’s social development. So today, I hope you will better understand self-talk and the same question and know how to respond to it.
I ask parents who complain of problems with self-talk not to think, “Oh, this is an autistic trait. That’s bad.” It’s important to understand that this is a characteristic of children with autism but also a necessary part of the process of outgrowing autism. If a child goes from not talking to talking to themselves, that’s great. But if a nonverbal child starts talking and then starts mumbling to himself, parents get scared and say, “Oh my God, he’s still autistic,” that’s not true. You have to understand that it’s part of the process of getting better. If you look at it positively, mumbling to oneself means that the degree of autism has improved to mild in terms of “language skills.”
Today, I want to say that children who talk to themselves are very treatable. This is because the essence of self-talking is that it’s an imaginative play that the child plays in their brain. Children do imaginative play by sensing things in the real world, but autistic children may play by connecting data in their brains, that is, connecting empirical data in their brains without any sensory input from the outside world.
The reason why mothers and fathers feel that this is a pathological phenomenon is because they are broadcasting it through their mouths. If the child keeps his mouth shut and plays on their own, there is no problem. But children with autism mumble their stories, and this broadcasting is their self-awareness language. It’s their way of reminding themselves that they imagine things so that they can recognize the story. So it’s essentially a fantastic process of intellectual development. It’s a process of deepening and developing an understanding of society, stories, and situations, and it’s a process of connecting that to independent thinking; these kids are likely to be very intelligent.
But if the child continues to engage in imaginative play in isolation from reality, their social development will be delayed, and their autistic tendencies will be perpetuated. But once they leap into this creative play, they can achieve both intellectual and social development. So in that sense, if your child starts talking to themselves, you should be excited because you’re setting the stage for an amazing leap in language, social, and cognitive development.
The worst response is to say, “That’s autistic behavior,” and try to stop your child from doing it. The best way to respond is to go into the child’s imagination and turn it into imaginative play with them, which means you go into that world where they’re imagining things. You need to go into the child’s world, and you need to intervene in the child’s imaginative play with full of affect so that the child has the experience of, “Wow, this is more fun when I do this with my mom and dad than when I do it alone.” This is something that we always emphasize in floortime play.
The second thing that parents struggle with is their child asking the same question repeatedly, even though they know the answer. They ask the question, but they already have an answer in mind. They ask the question expecting you to give them that answer, so when they get a different response, they repeat the question until they reach the answer they want. It’s hard and frustrating for parents because it’s an infinite loop, but you must understand that this is an inevitable part of social, language, and cognitive development. It’s just that kids with autism tendencies go through this process a little bit longer.
There are several implications of a child’s repetitive questions. Most importantly, it’s very positive that they’re spontaneously trying to talk to you. “Hey, Mom, I have a question, and I want to talk to you about it.” From the child’s perspective, they’re actively trying to have a conversation with their parent. It’s an early version of what could evolve into a ping-pong conversation. And this ability to have a reciprocal exchange could be the driving force that will have the most significant impact on their development later in life.