The Feels (the echolalia blues)

I remember welling up the first time I heard Ollie say “Aw, I just love you!” That sentence turned my world on its ear. All this time, I had thought that being autistic meant that feelings of love were muted, that my child was incapable of experiencing that kind of emotion. Yet, here, at 4 years of age, he said it!! He loved me! I was riding high, getting ready for my self-awarded “Mother of the Year” certificate, when I heard something on the television.

The voice sounded familiar, but I could not put my finger on it. Walking into the living room, I saw Ollie, in his usual position, legs “criss-cross-applesauced,” eyes fixed on the cartoon that was playing on the television. I found the remote and rewound the show he was watching. I listened for a couple of minutes and then I heard it.

“Aw, I just love you!”

The words pierced my eardrums with the same pitch, same staccato pace, and identical inflection as the ones that rolled out of my Ollie’s mouth not 10 minutes before.

What. The. What? My heart sank. I ripped up the mental picture of the sheer magic of my mothering ability, and cried as its imaginary pieces fell to the living room floor. Who was I kidding? What was I thinking? My child doesn’t love me! Not because he’s not capable, but because I was the worst. mother. ever.

Those are “the feels,” by my definition. The illogical, exaggerated, sudden waves of emotion that plagued me the first few years after Ollie’s diagnosis. What he lacked in expressiveness, I made up for, tenfold. Not only that, but every single thing this child did, was under my analytical and mom-interpreting radar. If he kicked a soccer ball, he was the next David Beckham, if he painted a picture, Da Vinci would be jealous, and if he said he loved me, in exactly the way I heard it said on television, not only did he not love me, but he had every reason not to.

I think much of the first few years of taking him to his therapist were really sessions more for my benefit, than for Ollie. In fact, it was from sitting in on his therapy sessions, that I learned the lion’s share of terminology, expected behaviors, and coping skills that I use today. I was fortunate to have not only a knowledgeable, but patient, and straightforward advocate for Ollie in his therapist.

It was in a session, not long after the “Aw, I just love you!” incident, that I first heard the term: Echolalia. The parroting of words or phrases heard by others, to communicate. Very often associated with autism, a means of stimming, used for expressing needs, and feelings, among other things.

It’s funny, once it was pointed out, I noticed it everywhere, and realized it had been going on for a very long time. So, I started keeping mental notes on when he would use the phrases he heard on television, to see if I could make any sense out of it. An Ollie to English translation book, if you will. A few come to mind as I write this…

“Just keep swimming!” -Dory, Finding Nemo: Used when Lego towers fell, when something heavy was being pushed around, and when punchy-tired, but not wanting to sleep.

“Swiper, no swiping!”-Dora the Explorer: Used when I would take Ollie’s dinner plate away, after an hour of trying to get him to eat something green.

“Can we fix it?”-Bob the Builder: Used when a piece fell off a toy, or when a page ripped from a book, and directed at me.

What I noticed, was that even though the words were not his, they were being used to communicate, and almost always used in the correct context to express what he wanted to say. It was my responsibility to interpret what Ollie needed or wanted to express, based on what phrases he used.

As the years have gone by, he uses them less and less, and when he does, I know what he means pretty quickly.

And I know he loves me, whether he says it the way I would like him to or not. In fact, these days he says it a lot…all on his own, using his own words…only these days, it usually means he’s done something he knows he’s not supposed to, and uses “I love you!” to butter me up.

You know what? I works every time. 🙂


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