A Glimpse into our autism: Being Bilingual

2 January 2019

Dear friend,

Yesterday she asked, Is he bilingual? She did not hide the hint of surprise in her voice. I knew that there were more questions coming.

Can he speak Dutch and English equally well?
Can he read and write in both?
Is it hard for him?
What do you speak at home?

Our language of choice/use at home is Dinglish (Dutch/English). Hubby speaks Dutch and I speak English. This works for us!

As someone who struggled with languages and a British person (as a nation we are not know for our language skills)  I have always found bilingual people fascinating so I understood her curiosity. But the shock in her question still stung. 

Yes my autistic son is bilingual!

For me there is something magical about listening to people, especially children, switching seemingly effortlessly between languages. My ears always prick up on the train or bus when I hear people translanguaging. But I never dreamed that I would be bringing my own children up as bilinguals. Until I met and fell in love with a Dutch man and moved to Holland.

As an educator working in an international school, I never questioned my children’s ability to learn two languages. I had worked with children that spoke four or five languages. I never questioned my sons' bilingualism or our approach to it—one parent one language (OPOL).

By the age of two, it was apparent that my boy was having some language and social difficulties. The first time his bilingualism was brought into question was at the age of three. The advice given by the  nursery teacher was to learn Dutch very quickly and only speak Dutch with him.

I chose to ignore the teacher’s advice for several reasons: my Dutch was awful so I didn’t want him to learn incorrectly from me, it didn’t feel right talking to him in another language, I wanted him to be able to communicate with my parents and finally everything I read on bilingualism talked about the importance of mother tongue.

But at the age of five my son was still having many challenges in school and was diagnosed with autism (PDD nos).  We were again advised to make him monolingual. 

Luckily I was in a position to be able to talk to colleagues in the international education system that had experience with bilingualism both professionally and personally and were able to support my decision to ignore the advice. 

From my heart, it felt wrong to deny my son access to my culture and the opportunity to really know and love his English family. And from my brain, I felt like we were being unambitious. Having a diagnosis of autism does not mean that you can't learn.  

Bilingualism is our norm. I did not want my son to be excluded from half of our daily conversations. I was sure he would get this with the love and support of us all.

Almost 10 years later and I am so happy that we stuck to our guns. I am very proud of our bilingual boys.

Special needs children can be bilingual, the language problems they have in one language will appear in the other. For example,  my son needed help to understand prepositions and he still struggles to understand figurative language. But that didn't stop him! 

There are also many advantages of bilingualism. I strongly believe that being bilingual has improved my son's understanding of the world as he has two frames of reference. 

During a typically interesting conversation with my son, he provided a great insight: 

You don’t sound like my mummy when you speak Dutch!

For an autistic child already struggling to communicate and frightened of change, how scary would it have been if mummy had suddenly stopped sounding like herself? 

Yesterday she asked, Is he bilingual?

Yes he is!

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