First, I may need to explain what the words tuning and scripting actually mean, when you’re speaking about people who live with autism. Autistics will sometimes sing the same melody over and over again, for minutes, for hours, sometimes for a whole day. We don’t just sing all of the verses once through; we sing all the verses in order, over and over. This is tuning.
Scripting is very similar. Rather than a song. though, we will repeat an entire passage from a book, an audio, a video, a skit, or even a commercial sometimes. We repeat that sequence of words or phrases over and over again. Why do autistics do this? There are a couple of reasons.
Think about our brains as though they were computers for a moment. When your computer has a reduced amount of RAM or an excessive amount of information coming in to sort, integrate, and remember, your computer can ‘hang’ or have a system crash (or in Mac terms, spin the rainbow ball of death). Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. Computers with reduced RAM are often useful for slowly crunching huge amounts of data, because they have lots of long-term memory.
Desktop computers, on the other hand, have lots of RAM, but only a moderate amount of long-term memory. They can have lots of windows open in different programs, with links between those programs so changes in one will update another. But they’re not really designed for the amount of number-crunching that an international bank might need.
Autistic brains have developed differently from non-autistic ones from exposure to high stress during key developmental stages. We’ve got a lot of hard drive to store information long-term, so the things that matter to us, we tend to remember in great detail. But autistic brains don’t have a lot of the RAM that allows non-autistics to have a whole bunch of windows open at the same time, on a computer desktop.
This RAM is what allows people to multi-task, walking while talking, or listening while seeing. Neuro-typical brains seem to have more RAM, so a non-autistic can flip between tasks while doing several things at once.
Every time an autistic is trying to pull up words to respond to or engage with something that’s going on, we don’t necessarily the ability to take in all of what’s happening, integrate it, and respond to it in a timely way. We’re processing so much more sensory information that our reaction times are often too slow to let us participate.
Especially in chaotic environments, this sensory integration is exhausting. There’s just too much information processing to do, in too little time. Sometimes it’s easier to engage by just using “canned” words or “canned” music, that has a particular meaning, and that feels appropriate to that situation. I used both tunes and scripts in this way, and it’s a common explanation, from us.
Now, the second reason we might tune or script is that a lot of our experiences don’t tend to be positive, when we’re autistic. As a result, when we have an experience that is positive, and either we find it funny or uplifting, or somebody else finds it funny or uplifting, it is often a very memorable occasion for us.
Our good memories can become something that we use in the future as kind of as a touchstone in situations that really aren’t as nice, that we’re not as happy in. In this case, we’ll tune or script to help lift our spirits. People have used stories and music to bring joy to rough circumstances throughout human cultures and histories.
Think of Welsh miners, or Roman oarsmen, or soldiers marching; something somewhat monotonous can help keep your mind off the things you don’t want to dwell on.
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