Autistic children can easily become bilingual - research

New research shows that autistic children learn two languages easily, and it can even enrich their lives.

 Rabbi David Ariel Sher (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi David Ariel Sher
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Parents of autistic children are routinely advised to raise their children to speak just one language, which has been a problem for Jewish families who want their children to know Hebrew, but now there is good news for families who have faced this issue. 

Research from Cambridge University in England, which has just been published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, undertaken specifically with families in the Jewish community, shows that not only can most autistic children learn two languages without any problem, but that being bilingual enriches their lives in critical ways. 

Rabbi David Ariel Sher, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University in the Department of Psychiatry, who led this research at the Cambridge Faculty of Education, is an author of the study and he discussed the conclusions. The study is based on written and oral interviews with 22 parents and 31 practitioners in the UK, reflecting the experiences of 168 Jewish children from all denominations. 

The title of the research by Sher and Doctors Gibson and Browne tells the story: “‘It’s Like Stealing What Should be Theirs.’ An Exploration of the Experiences and Perspectives of Parents and Educational Practitioners on Hebrew-English Bilingualism for Jewish Autistic Children.”

“When children are prevented from gaining competence in a second language, despite their family or culture being bilingual, they are being subject to what is often referred to as ‘forced monolingualism,’ and they miss out on important experiences,” Sher said. These experiences include engaging with Israeli families, having bar and bat mitzvahs, socializing with the community during religious services on the Sabbath, making blessings at meals and simply knowing what people are talking about when the words “Shabbat” or “Shabbos” and similar such words are mentioned. 

“Although there is no evidence that teaching autistic children a second language is harmful, there seems to be a prevailing, outdated view that it will confuse them and impede their acquisition of English. This overlooks the fact that Jewish children use Hebrew extensively to participate in community and family life. For autistic children, those opportunities are hugely important.”

In the past, Sher said, parents have had to weigh following the instructions of autism experts treating their children against their own wish that their children would learn Hebrew so that they could fully participate in the religious life and understand when Hebrew is spoken in their households. “Practitioners have tended to adopt the model that autistic children have difficulty learning languages – the ‘deficit’ view – and tell parents that they are not capable of being bilingual... These beliefs were based on erroneous ‘logic’ or intuition and not on empirical evidence. This forced parents to make an agonizing choice between passing on their cultural heritage and educating their children in specialist autistic schools.” Sher said, and decided it was worth investigating the issue further.

“I realized there was virtually nothing about autism and the Jewish community in English-language academic literature [on autism] and it encouraged me to explore this issue in the UK Jewish community.”

The research revealed that Jewish parents and practitioners saw no reason to limit language learning for autistic children. On the contrary, many autistic children proved especially adept at learning two languages. Perhaps the most interesting single finding is that “All [Jewish] practitioners noted that autistic children often performed better in language-related tasks than their neurotypical counterparts.”

Research shows there are often cognitive benefits to knowing two languages and some autistic children who were bilingual communicated more effectively in both languages than their monolingual counterparts. This study complements a growing corpus of literature showing that compared to their monolingual counterparts, bilingual autistic children do not incur additional language development delays.

This research confirms what many families have long known, that many autistic people have great memories and are quite interested in and proficient at the skills required for learning languages. On a personal note, as the mother of a young autistic man raised in a bilingual Hebrew/English household, I was told by his therapists in both America and Israel when he was young that he should only speak one language. When he spoke to me in English and I answered in English, therapists said I was ruining his chances of learning to communicate well and they even pushed me to throw out his English storybooks, which he treasured. I refused to do this. Eventually, I simply ignored them and continued to speak to him in English, as I always had, and he now speaks, reads and writes both languages easily.

Sher said he had heard many stories like mine. “It is very encouraging to get feedback like this from parents, which accords well with peer-reviewed research on this topic,” he said. 

Some may question why this research is different from other studies where practitioners were less sympathetic to bilingualism and maintained that autistic children cannot handle learning two languages. Sher said that many of the practitioners interviewed in this study came from Jewish backgrounds and understood the importance of the Hebrew language to Jewish families in the UK, Sher said. “As such, it appears there was greater sympathy and understanding towards bilingualism where languages were related to the shared culture.”

Sher acknowledges that some autistic children have difficulty learning to communicate in a single language and that these children should not be pushed to be bilingual, noting that this is true of children who are not on the autistic spectrum as well. 

There are plans to expand on this research to include more families and different methods, as well as to look at autistic children learning languages outside the Jewish community. “This research has wide implications for all families in every community who wish to raise their children bilingually,” said Sher. 

Another way that the research will be expanded is to get feedback from the children as much as is possible.

“We want to hear the voice of the autistic children themselves. Many autistic children who are fully able to express themselves have told us how much they enjoy speaking two languages... One said, ‘Knowing Hebrew gives me ability to converse with God.’ It empowers children and gives them a sense of pride.”