Autistic Passivity: Catatonia, Delayed Echolalia and Presumed Intentions

This is a post I have been meaning to blog about for some time but no matter how I try, I can’t seem to find the words. Any googling to look for inspiration or Autistic experiences comes up with things aimed solely at Neurotypical parents. Not very helpful to say the least. Something that happened to me earlier today triggered the urge to finally, finally write it out though. We’ll see how well I do.

There is this thing that happens. Every Autistic knows about it. This thing where there is a communication barrier and the individual on the other side assumes what it is you mean, and, well, they’re wrong. They cannot understand the Autistic and thus assign an intention where there is none, or where a different intent is meant. It most often happens with echolalia, but can also happen with impulse control errors or catatonic motor reactions. The Autistic individual is struggling to control what their  body does, but there is a processing error and therefore the body does its own thing… and their communication partner makes an assumption that causes a communication breakdown and possibly may lead to hurt feelings or even a meltdown.

I often say things that sound contextually appropriate, and are related in some way to the topic at hand, but happen to be factually incorrect delayed echolales of sentences other people have said. People presume I am unintelligent, or may become incensed that I said something offensive. “I didn’t mean to. I don’t actually believe that.” doesn’t exactly hit NT ears the right way. They ascribe intent. This isn’t a flaw, this is how people react, and they aren’t used to this phenomenon. People ascribe intent to everything. Last night, someone called my Lorna Wing quiz, “pandering”. An intent was ascribed to something I had merely done to pass the time and do some special interest engagement with where there was none. They had also become angry at this supposed pandering. To whom did they think I was pandering to? Why become angry at an intent you assumed was there without finding out whether that intent did indeed exist? I admit, my quiz was not great, nor was it meant to be. I’ve heard the same thing all my life. I have a communication disfluency. The amount of times I was held back during recess to rewrite paper after paper because of assumed intent would have put me in the top 1% by now if I got paid a penny for each incident.

This happens in other ways too. Impulse control. Every Autistic has been in a moment where their body did not obey their commands, lashing or thrashing out, and performing some action that may have hurt another person. Communication breakdown. Two weeks ago, I had some errands to do at the mall and upon entering, a man beside me suddenly kicked a constructed wall, creating a thunderous echo in my brain. Instantly I went full misophonia mode and while trying to regain control, he appeared in front of me and apologised. He had schizophrenia he said. He had impulse control problems. Immediately I softened and told him he did not need to apologise. I have Asperger’s. I know what it’s like to have your body not obey your orders. In that moment, we created a space of solidarity with one another. People out there understand what it’s like.

I have been calling this phenomena “Autistic Passivity” because, as far as I can tell, only Autistics are talking about this in any depth and it has no convenient search function at this juncture. All of us take in what we are exposed to. Some Autistics have an urge to mimic the movements of others, or to directly repeat what they hear. Others have delayed full sentence reactions, motor impulse control problems, or a communication disfluency that prevents us from being understood. I call it Passivity because we are sometimes forced to become passive observers to our own bodies and those around us seem content to ascribe whatever presumed intention they think we must have meant onto us, and to react emotionally to that. They react emotionally to assumptions. It is something all humans do, some to a lesser extent, some moreso(NTs tend toward doing it more often).

So what is even going on? Well, since no NTs are talking about it(because they are busy ascribing intent), I am not even sure. Recent studies have shown that Autistic brains are more reactive and less consistent in their impulses than non-autistic brains are. Scientists are finally starting to look at what Autistics have been saying forever about our executive functioning deficits. On top of that Autism is comorbid with many other neurodevelopmental disorders in which inhibition issues, language disfluencies, movement disorders, and executive dysfunction are all present. ADHD, OCD, Tourettes, and Dyscalculia are a small slice of this big mess of a shepherd’s pie. In my case, my sticky brain repeats the thing until I do it. I have tried to interrupt my own thoughts and urges but there is always an undercurrent that keeps the thing DO THE THING DO THE THING I DID THE THING.
Once it’s out into the aether, you no longer have any semblance of control over what happens with it. Cue assigned intention.

These actions aren’t done for absolutely NO reason, however. In the case of echolalia… there is more often than not, an attempt at back and forth communication. How it comes out is where the problem arises. There is a certain level of suggestibility to Autistic passivity. The mind needs to be open to absorbing that information to script and print out at a later date. I often get into these issues when I am struggling with poor social imagination or open ended questions. My brain freezes up. All that is left at my disposal is the filing cabinet of previous experiences. At worst, I may shut down entirely. At best, I may end up saying something entirely nonsensical but that appears contextually sound.

**There are very simple ways to get around it, however. Understand, and I mean really take the time to think about and do your research(autistic people are your friends), that it is not in anyone’s best interest to make assumptions about how your Autistic friend is feeling or thinking based on how they appear to be reacting. Ask them before you react emotionally.

**Do not ask open ended questions. Instead of asking, “do you wanna go out for dinner?” and becoming upset when they can’t choose a location to eat out at the drop of a hat, ask them if they would like to go out for sushi, or pizza. When they respond, ask them if they meant what they said. Do they have echolales about pizza?

**If they do or say something factually incorrect, ask them to repeat it. This will buy your friend time to think about their script and formulate a more correct answer. Don’t assume they lack intelligence because of a script they heard someone else say.

(This is called prompting. It is often used for treating catatonia, rather effectively, I might add)

If someone asks me an open ended question(“how does this make you feel? How does this affect your daily life?”) I need a long time to formulate an answer, otherwise I begin to fall back on scripts. I am also hyperlexic, like many on the spectrum are. This means a person can appear to understand something, but are actually very good at picking out and mimicking linguistic patterns. Some may then script or echolale those patterns. We need time to use those sounds to process their meaning. Be patient.


So, Autistic Passivity is a phenomenon then, that results in a communication breakdown when an individual with Autism is having trouble expressing their beliefs or needs. It results from a suggestible and perseverative thinking style that is highly dependent on things that have happened previously in their life. It results in echolalia, catatonia, and poor inhibition. Assigning intent to these actions without directly confirming with the person doing them first is the source of a lot of pain, stress and hurt between communicative parties.

2 thoughts on “Autistic Passivity: Catatonia, Delayed Echolalia and Presumed Intentions

  1. I was really glad to see this post, because I have something similar, and like you I’ve been trying and failing to find more information about it. I almost have the opposite problem, but I think it comes from the same source.
    Instead of saying/doing things that aren’t appropriate and getting in trouble, I tend to follow social scripts & do what people expect even when it’s not what I want. I’m not very good at answering open-ended questions on the spot either, but instead of responding with echoes/scripts, I usually just *don’t* answer. I stay silent way too long and then give a very short answer that doesn’t explain all the details of what I’m thinking. My expressive language is worse than my understanding of other people’s language, which seems to be the opposite of a lot of autistic people I’ve talked to online.
    What triggers this problem for me, instead, is when I have a very clear idea of what someone expects me to say/do. I feel that as a force that sort of sweeps the conversation along, so that I can’t redirect it or do anything too far outside what’s expected. I feel like what I say has to follow from what the other person says in a certain way, even if they’re wrong about something and following their lead means I can’t explain or correct them.
    Anyway, I like “suggestibility” and “passivity” as terms for this thing. Thank you for trying to explain it.


    1. Wow I am so glad for your response. I feel this is one of those autistic traits that only autistic understand. It makes for some really frustrating communications with NTs.


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