Effect of Autism on My Kids Bilingualism

{Photo by: respre}

My son Secondo was diagnosed with autism in late 2008. There were unfamiliar doctors bearing clipboards, lots of tears and tissues, and I remember riding home from the hospital in a haze, feeling fragile and powerless to stop the bottom from falling out of my world. His diagnosis changed everything.

My son Primo was diagnosed with autism late last year. The appointment was more of a formality with a doctor we know and like, and we all shrugged our shoulders as we came to the conclusion that Primo was already receiving exactly the services he needed. On the way home, I was mostly fixated on the idea of stopping for banh mi at my favorite Vietnamese place—I was hungry. His diagnosis didn’t really change anything at all.

One diagnosis, two very different little boys. One loves airplanes, pretends he is an airplane, turns every inanimate object he comes across into an airplane. One is never far from his magnetic drawing board so that he can quiz me on equivalent fractions, and asks me about prime numbers immediately upon waking, bleary eyed, first thing in the morning.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate the autism from what is simply typical. When I talk about something like Secondo and the airplanes, invariably someone will say, “Oh, my kid does that all the time.” And sometimes, hearing that is a relief. It’s a little reality check, and it reminds me that it’s not always all about the autism. Other times that comment annoys me, because I just know it’s not the same—I feel like mostly, I can tell when my boys are displaying what is just average behavior for a 5-year-old and when autism is rearing its head. And sometimes I wonder and just feel like my grasp on things is tenuous at best, because both of my boys have autism and how would I even know what is typical and what isn’t?

Rigidity is one of the hallmarks of autism, and we’ve dealt with that in many forms. (I know, what parent hasn’t?) Primo has a particularly hard time with this. If he remembers at bedtime that he didn’t have a morning snack, he falls apart. If his teacher is supposed to arrive for a home visit at 8:15 and is two minutes late, it drives him to tears (and we work on learning the meaning of the word “approximately”). If I say we turn the computer off at five, we turn it off at five, on the dot.

I was not prepared to see this inflexibility affect his bilingualism, but lately, it has. We use the One-Parent, One-Language method at home, and while I’ve talked to him about the fact that he speaks Spanish with me and English with his father, it’s simply been a note of explanation. I’ve never laid down the law or refused to speak or read to him in English. But he is increasingly fascinated by rules. Yo hablo en español contigo y en inglés con Daddy. He’s taken to repeating our informal rule over and over. It comforts him, my little boy who likes it when there is order in the world.

But then I decide to say something like, “Hey, buddy, time to go inside,” when he is riding his scooter with the little boy who lives across the street—and he is distraught. Mama, ¿por qué hablaste en inglés? There is wailing, crying, and suddenly I have a full-fledged tantrum on my hands. And I simply provide him with another note of explanation. Sometimes we speak English to be polite, because we want our friends to be able to understand what we’re saying.

We go to Costa Rica, and his Spanish skills soar. But when we call his father back home, Primo refuses to talk to him. En Costa Rica, solo hablo español, no hablo inglés. He is so committed to this rule that indeed, he does not talk to his father for the entire month. I worry for a while that when we get back he will refuse to speak to me in Spanish on the grounds that he only speaks English in the United States, and am relieved when that doesn’t happen.

Autism is very much a part of my life. Some aspects of it can be excruciatingly hard to deal with. In many ways, it has changed my life—for the better. Mostly, it is simply a part of who my boys are and it’s impossible for me to imagine a life without it. One of my favorite quotes is by Dr. Hans Asperger, who said, “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” It’s not essential for learning a second language, I’m sure. But right now, Primo’s autism seems to be offering him a slight advantage. And if that’s the case, hey, I’ll take it.

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