When my daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, entered high school, her special education teachers were not sure that her taking French was a good idea. After all, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is primarily a communication disorder, so wouldn’t taking a foreign language be the last thing someone with ASD would want to do? Many students with ASD process language slowly and receive speech and language services, so studying a foreign language would seem to fly in the face of common sense.
My daughter, however, really wanted to learn a foreign language, so against the advice of her teachers, we signed her up.
“It will be OK,” I reassured her teachers. “She’s got this language stuff down.”
And she did. Six years later, my daughter has almost finished her minor in French at her university. She took another full year of a second foreign language, Spanish, at the university level and will be taking linguistics this fall. She loves studying foreign languages, and she’s good at it. A conventional understanding of ASD might label my daughter’s ability as quirky or exceptional. But I don’t think so.
As a person with ASD, my daughter tends to focus on the details rather than the big picture, and foreign language study, especially at the elementary level, is extremely detail-oriented. The meanings of individual vocabulary words must be learned. Spellings and the placement of accents must be memorized. The genders of nouns and their appropriate articles must be remembered. Details, details and more details! In addition, studying a foreign language at the elementary level is a very concrete, black-and-white process, which can be comforting for someone with ASD who has difficulty with judgments and interpretations. When you study a foreign language, there are grammar rules; right and wrong ways of conjugating verbs and ordering sentence elements; and very few occasions for inferences, interpretations or judgments.
But more than being an academic area in which students with ASD might excel, foreign language study can also have psychological benefits for students on the autism spectrum. Research suggests, for example, that it can increase any person’s ability to focus.¹ Because people on the spectrum have difficulty filtering out images and sounds—the many sensory perceptions we all experience every moment of every day—they often find concentration more difficult than neurotypical learners. Studying a second language can make overall concentration an easier task, however, because of the way foreign language study trains the brain to attend to auditory stimuli. A big part of learning a second language is listening to how sounds are put together and analyzing how the sounds produced in one language are different from those produced in another language. In a 2013 study, researchers in Scotland found that people who know two languages are better at ignoring irrelevant auditory stimuli—something that students with ASD often have difficulty with—perhaps because they have trained their brains to focus on minute discriminations in language sounds.²
Another way that studying a foreign language might benefit students on the autism spectrum is that it can make the brain more flexible; that is, it can make the brain better at shifting from one task to another or even focusing on more than one task at a time.³ This is because people who speak more than one language must shift between the vocabulary and grammar of one language and those of another language. Doing so can be good for students on the spectrum because many have trouble transitioning, whether it’s from summer vacation to the academic school year or from art class to math. But when you study a foreign language, this kind of “brain shifting” happens all the time. Making the brain juggle between two languages may help students on the spectrum become better at juggling between other aspects of their lives.
When my daughter was writing a college research paper on the benefits of studying foreign languages, she said to me something like, “Mom, the research shows that people who know more than one language are better able to concentrate and to multitask, but I still have a lot of problems doing those things, even though I speak French and Spanish.”
“You still have some problems focusing and multitasking,” I replied, “but think of how much easier these skills have become for you since you began foreign language study.”
Studying a foreign language may not be right for every student on the autism spectrum, especially when we consider the complexity of ASD and the uniqueness of every human being. Foreign language study may also not create noticeable educational and psychological benefits in the short term. Many students with autism, however, may benefit academically, personally, socially and psychologically, so let’s not assume they can’t do foreign language because we have a misguided and simplistic understanding of autism. Instead, let’s keep an open mind.
For my daughter, studying French was not only one of the few classes she had no trouble with, but the subtle and incremental psychological changes that have accrued were worth the effort—even if she can’t always see them at this point. For her, the benefits will last a lifetime.
Wendorff is a professor of English, ethnic studies and women and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
1. See Viorica Marian and Anthony Shook, “Cerebrum.” The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. The Dana Foundation, 2012.
2. See Christopher Wanjek, “Learning a New Language at Any Age Helps the Brain.” Livescience. June 2014.
3. See Jeffrey Kluger, “The Power of the Bilingual Brain.” Time 182:5 (2013): 42.