Emma can be very strict. She is a stickler for rules. Merlin (see yesterday’s post) is not supposed to jump up onto the counters or dining room table. If he does, Emma shouts, “Merlin! Get down!” Even if he hasn’t jumped up on the counter (yet) Emma will remind him, “Merlin! You may not get up on the table.”
If we have a vase of flowers on the dining room table Emma will repeatedly warn Merlin (whether it applies or not) “Merlin, kitty, you cannot eat the flowers!” Then she’ll laugh.
These are all things she has heard us say at some point and Emma is a terrific mimic. She will not only repeat the things she hears us say, but she will mimic the tone. There’s a word for what she does. It is – echolalia – common among autistic children. Echolalia is the parroting or echoing of sentences and phrases heard. Emma does not make the sorts of linguistic mistakes commonly heard in young children. She does not say things like – I bringed it to her – something often heard from young neuro-typical children as they try their best to navigate the English language. On the other hand Emma will say – Bye Emma! When saying good-bye to someone, whose name is definitely not Emma. It is what she hears them say to her when they or she is leaving. Why would she say anything else!? To Emma “Bye Emma” means a parting of ways. Or, as in the case of a dinner party we had a few months ago, Emma felt it was time for everyone to leave, she announced – “Dinner is all done! Bye Emma!” When our guests, understandably confused, said, “Oh! Are you going now?” but did not themselves show any sign of leaving, Emma began bringing them their coats, saying, “Bye! Bye Emma!” while vigorously waving her hand good-bye. Needless to say she cleared the place out within minutes, despite our reassurances that it was not time to go yet and wouldn’t they like to stay and have some coffee or tea.
For Emma, however, we had eaten, she had patiently waited while this occurred. She knew there would be dessert after which she would be allowed to blow out the candles on the dinner table while singing “Happy Birthday” (Any party is a birthday party and remarkably some guest almost always is about to have or has just had a birthday – so it confirms Emma’s ‘party = birthday party’ theory.) Once Emma has sung Happy Birthday, usually several times and with all of us joining in for the third or fourth “last time” rendition – it is time to go to bed. Emma has a difficult time understanding that we may not be ready for bed. We may want to move into the living room to talk, have some tea or coffee and enjoy each other’s company. This, for Emma, is not how it should be, it is her bedtime now and so it should be everyone elses too. This sort of flexibility does not fit into her “rules”. The guests should leave and if they do not, then Emma must remind them.
When Emma was beginning to talk she did not say single words, but whole sentences. See previous post – “Emma at Ten Months Old”. As Emma grew older, she would repeat things she heard others say. But the things she latched on to were things said with a great deal of emotion, or, as Stanley Greenspan used to say, “high affect”. Sometimes these comments were in context, but other times they were arbitrary. A dear friend of mine who has two children just a bit younger than mine admonished her son in the playground one day while we were there.
“Rogan NO!” She shouted, as her son dashed toward the gate leading out onto 10th Avenue. Emma, for the next four years mimicked her in all sorts of situations. Often it was when she wanted to go somewhere, but knew she shouldn’t, but just as often it was arbitrary. Emma would shout, “Rogan NO!” Sometimes she would add “You have to come back!” And sometimes she would just use the short hand version “NO!” But we knew from the way she said it, the tone she used who she was mimicking. She had captured the voice perfectly. A few years ago we ran into my friend with her children in the park and Emma upon seeing her, immediately said, “Rogan, NO!” Fortunately my friend has a good sense of humor and didn’t take offense.
Emma does the same thing with another friend of ours.
“Jack!” Emma will shout in a stern voice. Then “Jack! Jack! Jack!” Said in rapid succession. She captures the child’s name and the anxiety ridden pitch perfectly. At Nic’s birthday party a few years back, Emma, upon seeing Jack’s father, started shouting – Jack! Jack! Jack!
“I guess that’s how I sound, huh?” The father said, looking slightly embarrassed.
How to explain?
For Emma, rules help her cope in a world run riot. Rules provide sameness and from that, Emma derives comfort. Though Emma has been known to question some of the rules she does not like. “We cannot make pancakes,” Emma will say, knowing it is a school day. She hopes maybe we will make pancakes anyway and this is as close to a question as we often get. But once confirmed, “No we cannot make pancakes this morning. It’s Wednesday,” one of us will say, Emma will begrudgingly accept this. It is our rule after all.
“Sleep, wake up, sleep wake up, sleep wake up, pancakes!” Emma will respond.
“Yes. That’s right. Pancakes on Saturday and Sunday.”
“Make pancakes with Mommy?” Emma will say with a sly grin, trying one last time to see if this ‘rule’ can be suspended if for only one day.
“Pancakes with Mommy on Saturday. Today is Wednesday.”
“Okay,” Emma will say.