Bilingual or multilingual families have difficult choices to make if their child is diagnosed with autism. While it is certainly possible to be bilingual if you are autistic, many parents are advised that one language may be easier or more realistic than two. That is despite our research group finding that bilingualism has no negative effect on autistic traits, or in fact on any developmental disorder.
On the contrary bilingualism may be beneficial for autistic children, giving them more opportunities to socialise, more access to their cultural identity and, crucially, the chance to communicate with members of their wider family. In fact, our research suggests that parents of autistic children who are raised in a bilingual home overwhelmingly aspire for their children to grow up speaking two languages.
However, around the world, when it comes to making school choices for their children, many bilingual families with autistic children are faced with a dilemma. They often have to choose between their heritage and cultural preference and an autistic child’s educational needs.
A case in point is Wales, a country with two official languages – Welsh and English. Some families in Wales would like to raise their child bilingually but while children with autism can attend Welsh medium schools, there are no specialist autism schools that educate through the medium of Welsh. Often parents have to choose between their child’s language and their needs.
Autism and Welsh
As part of an interdisciplinary project on multilingualism, Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies, our research group has investigated the experiences of parents, teachers and the children themselves in Wales when it comes to bilingualism and autism. We have found that all three groups hold very positive attitudes towards bilingualism.
The children were enthusiastic about learning other languages at school and highlighted the usefulness of being able to speak both English and Welsh. Teachers suggested that bilingualism increased autistic children’s employability in later life, and their ability to pick up other languages. Parents were also keen to highlight the cultural and social advantages for their children.
One mother that we spoke to, Vicky, mentioned that being bilingual is part of her son’s identity and culture. While another, Jane, outlined the possible social advantages of her son speaking two languages:
It’s made him have to gauge somebody else’s preferences. Before he opens his mouth, he’s making those judgements – ‘do I speak to them in English or Welsh?’.
Despite these positive views, two key issues came to the fore which indicated that being bilingual was not always a practical possibility for children in Wales. Firstly, it emerged that in the case of children with more acute language difficulties, parents and teachers considered one language to be more appropriate than two.
Speaking about her son, Jamie, who was consistently using English in his Welsh-medium school, Patricia noted, “you can’t assess him if he’s not speaking the Welsh and I don’t want to disadvantage him”. This sentiment was echoed by Jamie’s teacher, who said that “he finds it hard socially because he is constantly speaking English and everyone else is speaking Welsh”. Another mother, Naomi, agreed that if her son “was having difficulties communicating his basic needs, then probably we would have gone with just one language”.
Secondly, parents of autistic children in Wales often face difficult decisions about the type of school their child should attend. Many felt that a mainstream environment was not entirely suitable for their child, believing they required additional support of the type only found in specialist autism schools.
However, the conspicuous lack of Welsh-medium specialist provision often leaves parents with the dilemma of choosing between an English-medium specialist education (and a potential loss of bilingualism) or a Welsh-medium mainstream education (without sufficient specialist support). This sense of compromise was exemplified by Naomi, who wanted her son to have a bilingual education but admitted that “finding a specialist school that will be able to do that is unlikely”.
Together our findings suggest that while children, parents and educators tend to appreciate the benefits of speaking both Welsh and English, they are often constrained by the lack of specialist provision offered though the medium of Welsh. This barrier was alluded to in a recent review of the government’s Welsh Language Strategy, which raised concerns about Welsh-medium provision for pupils with additional learning needs.
This research may well resonate in other countries across the world where education is offered in more than one language. We recommend creating more opportunities for children to access specialist education in two languages, so that the possibility remains open for autistic pupils in Wales – and beyond – to enjoy the many benefits of being bilingual.