One of the diagnostic criteria of autism is repetitive/restrictive behaviors. These repetitive behaviors can sometimes take the form of echolalia. Echolalia is defined as meaningless repetition of another person’s spoken words. Echolalia isn’t using verbal language to communicate something rather it’s a form of the idiosyncratic behaviors that many individuals with autism engage in. Some parents and teachers refer to echolalia as scripting.

If you work in an autism classroom, you have likely had a student who engaged in some form of scripting. Whether that’s singing the entire Scooby Doo theme song on repeat, replaying mom and dad’s argument from the night before, or constantly repeating the question of the day well into the afternoon – it can take many forms. Sometimes it’s not intrusive at all. Some kids can turn it off and on and still engage in functional and successful communicative responses throughout the day.

However, for other learners, the scripting can take over. If you are scripting – you can’t be answering a math problem, socializing with a friend, or asking for a cookie. Scripting can limit the student’s ability to learn new skills. It’s also can be very ostracizing. A student will struggle in an inclusion setting if he is repeating scenes from the movie Chuckie nonstop. And you better believe that classroom teacher won’t be pleased to include your student either.

Scripting is a hard skill to work on reducing because often times it is a sensory behavior. These are behaviors that don’t result in a consequence that we have access to. The child isn’t gaining anything tangible, getting attention, or getting out of doing something he doesn’t like. The behavior just feels good internally. It’s like cracking your back or twirling your hair. Scripting provides some type of internal satisfaction. We all engage in sensory behaviors of some form. 

Sidenote: Not all scripting is a sensory behavior but for many students it can be. In this post we will talk about scripting that is sensory related. Some scripting may also be an attention behavior or escape behavior. Check out my Behavior Series for more info on these types of responses.

We can teach our students to control when to engage in these responses. We all engage in sensory behaviors but we know where and when we should do it. While I am giving a presentation, it would be pretty weird for me to lay on the floor and crack my back but when I’m in bed at nighttime it’s okay.

Scripting isn’t self-injurious or dangerous. But it may limit further skill development and opportunities for friendship or independence. For some students who have scripting behaviors that are extreme or very disruptive, it may be helpful to work on helping the student reduce these behaviors and replace them with other communicative behaviors!

Teaching Where and When
Like I said, we don’t need or maybe even want to eliminate these behaviors altogether but we do want to teach a child where and when scripting is appropriate. Just like can’t take off your shoes and put your feet up in the middle of a staff meeting, during a math lesson is not the time to script. Use visuals, schedules, and other concrete cues to show you student where and when scripting is appropriate. Provide direct instruction by telling them when it is okay and when it is not. Designate a specific spot in your classroom or home as the ‘sensory spot.’ A certain chair, corner of the room, or part of the carpet where these sensory behaviors are allowed. We can also teach them to do it more quietly during those “grey area” times such as when they are working independently or waiting in line in the cafeteria. It may be okay to quietly hum your favorite song of movie scene but not be okay to yell it at the top of your lungs. You can even have your student work for scripting time. Use that powerful sensory behavior to your advantage and work on teaching functional skills using that relaxing and deescalating scripting behavior as a motivator. IMG_0931-406-1024x765
Reinforce Intervals Without Scripting
A successful intervention to reduce scripting is providing high magnitude reinforcement for time intervals WITHOUT the behavior. The key is to provide some really stellar reinforcement. You asking the child to reduce a behavior that they probably have a very long history with and a behavior that is very reinforcing. They aren’t going to do all the work of reducing the behavior for jelly bean or two. Use high powered reinforcers with this intervention! This strategy may be appropraite for high intensity or very extreme scripting that significantly effects the student’s growth. Again – you still want to give them the opportunity to engage in this behavior at some time. But this is the process of starting to teach when/where. 
How to Set up this Intervention: Identify an achievable time interval that the student can go without engaging in the scripting  behavior. Take baseline data! If the behavior typically occurs every 3 minutes, make the time interval 2 minutes. The interval should be short and doable. You need your student to contact success and get some buy-in to the intervention. So select your time interval (2 minutes), explain the system to your student, set the timer, and when the timer goes off without any instances of the problem behavior – provide the reinforcement. If the student engages in the problem behavior, restart the interval. This provides a punishment aspect for the behavior.
Tips for this Intervention:
  • This can be used more easily with students with more language. Explain the rules. Put a name for the behavior you are trying to decrease so you have a way to talk about it. For reducing scripting, have a name for it. We called it “bad talking” with a student recently to reduce this behavior. We didn’t want to reduce all talking but more specifically the disruptive and violent themed scripting behavior that the student was engaging in.
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  • Use visual timers or an iPod app to illustrate the length of the timing.
  • Fade this to a token economy. Student can earn a point for every interval without a behavior and exchange points for reinforces.
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  • Use visuals to clarify the rules.
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My Success Story: My most successful intervention I have used this for was for a student whose scripting was very extreem. It completing limited his chances for inclusion and was very disruptive to his own learning. We used this intervention starting at 2 minutes. After 2 minutes with no scripting he got a prize. And we made a big ole’ deal about this – praise galore and he loved it. We gradually increased the time – which we again made a big deal over, I called it graduating. “You graduated to 4 minutes!” I would get crazy excited over this and you know what? He started increasing the time intervals on his own. Soon he was doing 20 minute intervals where he earned a point at the end of interval. He would trade in points at the end of the day (10 points can buy computer, 8 points busy candy, etc.). It was been A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! He went from scripting during 90% of the day to 0%!! Here is his graph – the blue is the percentage of the day he engaged in scripting (sorry for the bragging – but only you all would probably appreciate this!).

This post is part of Summer Series: Reducing Problem Behavior. Click here to see more in this series!

Teach Other Verbal Behaviors

Some students engage in scripting behaviors, because they don’t know how to engage in other appropriate communicative responses. So spend some real time work on building those other verbal skills. Provide reinforcement for any type of appropriate verbal behavior. Consistently model what they student should be saying and provide appropriate processing time to give the student a chance to respond. When they do respond, praise like crazy! Even if the response isn’t exact, using shaping to provide reinforcement for closer and closer responses towards the correct behavior. It will be gradual but successful!

Check out these post for other ideas on teaching communicative behaviors:

  • Teaching Greetings {click here}
  • Embedding Communication Opportunities {click here}
  • Conversation Skills {click here}
  • Answering Questions {click here}


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