Autism is a developmental condition, meaning that it is about how the brain and the mind develop, before birth and all the way to adulthood. During this development phase, the autistic brain will sometimes wire things up differently, and compute things differently, to other brains. This is why autistic people experience certain things very differently from non-autistic people: they can have difficulties with social activities, be puzzled by unspoken social rules, and they can also feel things in a unique way. Sounds, smells, touch, movements, can sometimes be felt by people with autism in a way that non-autistic people cannot even imagine!
Because of all of these, parents, practitioners, and teachers, have long been thinking that autism and bilingualism could not work together. If a child already finds communication challenging, why make things even more confusing by adding another language? Unfortunately, for decades, people believed this, but never actually checked whether bilingualism would indeed make things worse for autistic people.
Luckily, things are changing, and a few researchers are now investigating this question, some of which are right here in Edinburgh! The first results of our research are very exciting: as it turns out, whether we measure language development, behaviour, or the ability to manage a lot of information at once, monolingual and bilingual children with autism are very similar, meaning that bilingualism is not confusing at all.
Even better, when looking at social skills, it seems that bilingualism can help autistic people to better understand themselves and others. Indeed, this would make sense, as knowing multiple languages offers you so many more words to understand the world and express yourself! Of course, all these results are very new, and we need much more research.
So, what is it like for families with autistic children? I’m going to take an example from Jessie Hewiston’s book, ‘Autism’. Imagine you and your partner are both British, brought up in Britain, used to its food, language and culture. One day you have a child, and when the child is about 5 years old, you discover that they are not British at all, but French! That’s why they don’t understand your language, and find your food disgusting. Now, really, the problem is not that your child is French, the problem is that you did know about it, and you know nothing about France. Once you start taking lessons to understand your child’s culture, things get much better.
For this World Autism Awareness Day (and all the other days), I invite bilingual people out there to think about the ways in which they can try and better understand the experience of autistic people. When we move to a new county, with its own culture and language, we too are lost and confused. How many times did you find yourself in a conversation with native speakers, taking so long to understand what people said and prepare a good sentence in your head, that the conversation just moved on without you in it? How many times did you find yourself puzzled by these new customs and unspoken social rules that make absolutely no sense AT ALL? How many times did you feel that using your mouth in this new way to speak this new language felt so surreal?
Of course, these examples are very far from the real experience of autism, and still you see how unsettling these were for you. Now, do you also remember how great it felt when someone from this new country told you they thought you were great, and asked you to tell them about your homeland? That’s the thing, you see, you just feel more at home in a new land when people there value you for all you bring to the table!
Here is the take-home message.
Want to read more? Find out about Bérengère’s research here: http://dart.ed.ac.uk/research/berengere/
World Autism Awareness Day is 2 April – to “recognize and celebrate the rights of persons with autism” (United Nations)