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Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Autism and Bilingualism: Why I Ignored the Professional’s Advice to Drop My Son’s Second Language

Bilingualism and autism: the author's son Oscar (c) Catherine Heemskerk

Nine years ago I fell in love with a ‘Dutchie’. We married and I moved to the Netherlands and soon after had my son. As an educator working in an international school, I never questioned my children’s ability to learn two languages. My belief was that children exposed to another language from birth would pick it up easily. I had worked with children that spoke four or five languages. I never questioned my son’s bilingualism or our approach to it—one parent one language (OPOL).


By the age of two, it was apparent that Oscar was different than other children. “More of a care child,” was how one rather abrupt nursery teacher described him. The first time his bilingualism was brought into question was at the age of three. The advice given by the teacher was to learn Dutch very quickly and only speak Dutch with him. Although as I child I was raised to respect professionals and believed that they knew everything, as an adult I understand that professionals, despite their best intentions, sometimes get it wrong.


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 (how could I pass on my culture through songs, stories etc.?), 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. Instead we made a difficult family decision. My husband quit his job and found work close to home. He became more involved in the care of our children to support their language development and me as well.


During Oscar’s first year at school, the language delay was discussed in terms of his lack of vocabulary. The fact that Dutch was his second language and his dad had worked away from home most of his life was taken into account. In our small Dutch village, the teachers had little experience of bilingualism. However, the style of Dutch early education, learning through play, really suited him and he made very good progress with the guidance of two excellent teachers.


At the age of five Oscar was still having many challenges in school both language and social so we had him tested. The diagnosis was autism (PDD nos.) and they advised us to move Oscar to a special school and make him monolingual. The assessment had been completed in Dutch as Oscar was attending a Dutch school. This demonstrates a serious problem for parents of bilingual children with autism and other special needs. Firstly, testing must be conducted in the majority language in order to provide a fair representation of cognitive ability and secondly, we are torn between a professional’s (well meaning) advice and our own feelings and beliefs.


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. During a typically interesting conversation with Oscar, he provided me with 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?


I am so glad that I followed my gut feeling and even moreso when I see that current research is supporting my decision. Research into bilingualism and autism is only just beginning but two recent studies (November 2011) posted in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders found that bilingual parents should not be discouraged from exposing children with autism to multiple languages.


Our language of choice/use at home is Dinglish (Dutch/English)—this is how Oscar explains it. Daddy speaks Dutch and Mummy speaks English. But when friends come to play mummy has to speak Dutch so they understand. It may not be perfect but this works for us, so we’re sticking with it!

© 2013, Catherine Heemskerk. All rights reserved.

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Catherine Heemskerk was born in Middlesbrough in the Northeast of England. She worked in primary education for 8 years before becoming a consultant for a local education authority, leading the development of literacy. Since 2005 Catherine has lived in Holland where she is raising two sons (age 4 and 7), together with her husband, to be bilingual in English and Dutch. Catherine has worked in international education for 8 years and is currently teaching children with English as an additional language.

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1 Comment
  1. Commentslee simpson   |  Tuesday, 03 September 2013 at 1:40 pm

    It obvious to me that with two loving supportive parents and equally loving and supportive grandparents and friends that you have Oscar is in very good hands . You are very right to go with your well thought through parental instincts, after all you know Oscar best!

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