Bill Long 8/20/06
With A Lesson From Classical Mythology
The developmental disorder we know as autism, first presented in a scientific paper by Professor Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins University in 1943, only received widespread acceptance in the field of psychology after 1980, when the DSM-III book (the "Bible" of personality disorders) recognized three distinction features of this condition. Those features have been refined in the DSM-IV (1994) and are the following: (1) qualitative impairment in social interaction; (2) qualitative impairments in communication; and (3) restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities. But the definition, as might be expected, is much more complex than this. Actually, to receive a diagnosis of autism, one must have at least two of four manifestations of social impairment listed under (1); must have at least one of four manifestations of (2) and one of four manifestations of (3). The purpose of this and the next essay is to examine one of the manifestations of qualitative impairments in communication which psychologists call echolalia.
The DSM-IV doesn't actually use the term echolalia, but it lists the following descriptions of (2) above, which when combined, seem to fit echolalia.
"(2)(b) in individuals with adequate speech, marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others."
"(2)(c) stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language."
In short, echolalia is mimicking what a person has said to you. The OED tells us that the word echolalia was only invented in English in 1885 and signifies "the meaningless repetition of words and phrases." My thesis, however, is that echolalia, one of the characteristic features of about 75% of people with autism, is, for the autistic person and for those of us who really listen to such a person, anything but meaningless. What helps me come to that conclusion is not an exhaustive record of dealing with autistic patients. Instead, what helps me to this conclusion is the same source that originally bequeathed to modern psychology the name of the concept of echoing speech: the story of Echo and Narcissus from Greek Mythology.
A Primer on Echo and Narcissus
The story of Echo and Narcissus appears in Book III of that veritable treasure trove of classical myths: Ovid's Metamorphoses. Some scholars have suggested that we would be more impoverished in our understanding of classical mythology if we lost Ovid than if any other ancient source perished. Ovid recounts more than 250 vivid mythological tales in his fast-flowing pages. Narcissus was the son of a rape by Cephisos of the sea nymph Liriope. By the time he was 15 he was sought by male and female suitor allike because of his androgynous beauty. One of the female smitten by his looks was the sea nymph Echo. However, as is usually the case with characters in Greek mythology, Echo had a problem.
According to the story in Ovid, Echo could not remain silent if somone else spoke, nor could she herself speak first. She had been cursed by Juno (Jupiter/Zeus' wife) only to repeat the last words or sounds of what was spoken to her. Echo had aroused Juno's pique because Echo kept Juno distracted in coversation while Zeus was having his way with various earthly and semi-divine females. Because Echo had "tricked" Juno with her tongue, she would only retain the very slightest use of the instrument of trickery.
Despite being overcome by Narcissus' wonderful looks (she "burned with love for him"), Echo could only "track" him as he wandered in the countryside. She was unable to initiate a conversation with him, unable even to formulate an introductory word. Yet, "the more she watched him, the hotter burned the flame in her."
On one occasion Narcissus shouted over in her direction: "Is anyone here?" to which she responded, "One here!" He saw Echo and shouted, "Come here," to which she answered, "Come here." Finally, after one more exchanges, he called to Echo: "Let's come together," and she answered, "Come together." Echo was overcome with emotion and ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck. Not expecting this vigorous show of emotion, Narcissus was repulsted by her and said: "Take your hands away from me! I'll die before I'd give the time to you." Echo, because of her curse, had to respond, and she answered, "I'd give the time to you."
Narcissus would have nothing more to do with her and, hurt by his ignoring her, she withdew and pined away with grief. Sleepless worry took over her life, and lack of food wore away her skin. She faded away, becoming only the wisp of her former self. "From that day Echo hides in the forest and is never seen on the bare slopes of the hills. She is heard by everyone, but only the sound of her lives."
Then, as most know, Narcissus is cursed by one of the gods, who answers another spurned lover's prayers, and he falls in love with his reflection in a limpid pool of water. The language of Ovid becomes incredibly rich at this point, even though it is beyond the scope of these essays. Suffice it to say that Narcissus grieved that he couldn't unite with the beautiful boy in the water and he pined away until he finally died. His last words as he looked on his reflection in the water were these: "Oh vainly beloved youth," to which Echo, now just an "echo" responded, "beloved youth."
The next essay uses this myth to try to help us understand echolalia.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long