Could you tell us a little about yourself and your family?
I’m from Britain, but have been living and working in Japan since 1994. I currently work full-time as a teacher at a Japanese university. My Japanese wife and I are both fluently bilingual, and speak English at home as a first language. We have a 5-year-old son, Teeda, and a 3-year-old daughter, Ursula.
Our son was diagnosed as being mildly autistic in April 2012. We had noticed that his communication was delayed compared to his peers, but thought this was probably due to the bilingual setting at home. In addition, our family had to spend the previous year living apart for work reasons. In February 2011, my wife received an unexpected job offer in another part of Japan which she decided to take. There was no time for me to also look for work in the area, and I had already signed a contract for the following year at the university where I was teaching. While our daughter was too young to notice the difference, the adjustment was hard for Teeda, with partings especially tearful. It was easy to feel that this trauma had temporarily affected his development.
Teeda does not share many of the symptoms of classic autism. He is cheerful, tactile and sociable, so this also allayed our concerns until the diagnosis. Although mild, or high functioning autism (HFA) is far from the worst challenge for a child, as parents we nevertheless had to go through a period of shock and some denial before we could begin to start coping with Teeda’s condition.
For the first six months or so in his new school, the situation did not look promising as he seemed to be making little obvious progress. He would keep to himself. When I went to pick him up, I would usually find him sitting alone in a corner immersed in a picture book. While he could communicate with his teachers, he clearly found conversation and interaction with his peers daunting. School events involving lots of noise and people sometimes induced panic. He would try to find a safe place to observe activities such as the school festival or play while being unable to participate in them. For the first four years of his life, being unaware of his condition, it was a no-brainer for us to try to raise him bilingually. After his diagnosis, however, and given his lack of early progress, we realized that we would have to reconsider our position.
“…an alternative view suggested by recent research appeared to show that not only did bilingualism not have a significant negative effect on language development for autistic children, it could actually benefit them in several ways.”
What did you see as the pros and cons of raising your child bilingually?
A flurry of research made us aware that bilingual families in Japan with children experiencing a language delay were generally recommended to revert to monolingualism, at least until the Japanese base language was established. This is still the orthodox and pervasive view of the majority of Japanese therapists and medical professionals. We found several case studies of families similar to our own. In all cases, the parents had been advised to switch to monolingualism. In most cases such families did eventually make progress with their child’s ability to communicate, albeit monolingually.
On the other hand, there was an alternative view suggested by recent research that appeared to show that not only did bilingualism not have a significant negative effect on language development for autistic children, it could actually benefit them in several ways. Firstly research has indicated that bilingualism improves cognitive and linguistic abilities such as concept formation, which is often a key skill deficit for autistic children. More obviously, and to me most importantly, switching to Japanese only would feel as though I was cutting him off from half of his family and his identity.
Making the decision as to whether or not to maintain bilingualism was a long and painful process. I felt that the academic research did indicate that bilingualism may be the best road to take. However, I was aware that my preference for bilingualism also included personal and perhaps selfish reasons. Although my spoken Japanese is fluent, I was aware that I didn’t want to lose that personal connection that comes from being able to speak with my son in my own mother tongue. My connection to my family in England is very strong, and I really wanted to share that part of my life with him. I knew that we had to decide, and I found myself desperate for advice about what would be best for our son.
At first I hoped to find an expert in whose judgment I had confidence to settle the matter for us. In part this was because I was wary that my bias might make it hard for me to be sure I was really being objective about our son’s best interest. There was also certainly a desire to find some all-knowing hero to take our worries away. Trying to learn about a condition which seemed so complex often left us feeling powerless and isolated. More importantly, we were far from certain that we were doing the best for our son.
“The danger is that the child becomes ostracized or feels isolated, which can lead to a vicious circle of self-doubt and withdrawal.”
Who did you turn to for advice?
Our first port of call was to talk to our main doctor provided through our city’s health care services. I found him to be thoughtful and intelligent, with a great manner for communicating with our son. He is still a favorite of Teeda’s. Following Japanese orthodoxy, he initially advised us that the key was to establish Teeda’s basic day to day communication in Japanese. After I explained our situation more fully, he supported the idea of our son remaining bilingual.
His take on the situation was nuanced and interesting. On one hand, he reasoned that in Japan, in particular, it is very important to be able to fit in. With the milder forms of autism, the skills of communication and social interaction usually develop eventually. The danger is that the child becomes ostracized or feels isolated, which can lead to a vicious circle of self-doubt and withdrawal. On the other hand, the Japanese have an exaggerated respect for someone who can speak English fluently. This could be a social advantage for Teeda, and in addition, may lead Japanese to judge his behavioral differences more leniently as being a part of his foreign identity. This is, in my opinion, a valuable insight.
Unfortunately, our relationship with this doctor did not remain entirely smooth. I felt that he had made some intelligent observations, but they lacked the support of direct experience. It would have been unreasonable for us to expect our local doctor to be bilingual or familiar with the challenges facing bilingual families. Nevertheless, to get the complete picture, we wanted Teeda to be assessed in both languages, and felt that a specialist who understood bilingualism first hand could give us valuable advice about what to do in our situation.
When we asked our doctor for a letter of recommendation to meet with a specialist who seemed to fit the bill, he accused us of being “greedy.” He argued that we were lucky enough to already have one therapist (himself) without trying to access another. He felt that we ought to appreciate that there was not enough therapy to go around for autistic children. I appreciate his point, but still don’t personally feel that it was wrong to seek a second opinion. He backed up his statement by threatening to withdraw his treatment if we consulted the second doctor. As the main doctor provided by our city, he is responsible for approving all of our access to government-subsidized therapy. As such, we felt that we could not afford to antagonize him and abandoned the idea of seeing the second doctor. The experience did, however, somewhat shake our confidence in him being best able to advise us.
“We foresee many challenges ahead for all of us…but deciding whether or not to be bilingual is no longer amongst them.”
How did you finally arrive at your decision?
Both my wife and I had always favored the idea of raising our children bilingually. What gave rise to doubts was less the fact that orthodox Japanese therapy is strongly in favor of monolingualism, than that Teeda himself seemed to be stagnating linguistically. By equal measure what finally reassured us that we were on the right path was that in late January of this year (2013), he suddenly started to bloom in his development.
It’s difficult to be sure what the trigger was. Children at the age of four or five tend, in any case, to undergo a dramatic development in spoken communication. It may be that he was shrugging off any lingering trauma from the year that we had to live apart as a family. At the time I felt that it might be due to the use at home of the child-centered therapy I had found in the book TalkAbility, produced by Canada’s Hanen Centre. As an example, I would let Teeda plan his own day at the weekend. We would list several activities he wanted to do, and then I would negotiate in some which I wanted him to do. He seemed to love the idea that his day had a structure over which he had some control, and that if he could be patient, the things he wanted would come to him.
At any rate he was visibly a happier, more confident, and responsive child. He has continued to develop smoothly since then. Our regular speech therapist says that his communicative level is currently around that of a typical late three year old, so about a year behind. His English is a little better than his Japanese, but his reading in both languages is well ahead of his age group. We foresee many challenges ahead for all of us in helping Teeda to fulfill his potential, but deciding whether or not to be bilingual is no longer amongst them.
“…there is no scientific basis to support the idea that bilingualism delays the linguistic and cognitive development of children with ASD.”
What advice would you give to families in a similar position?
Firstly, I would encourage them not to feel intimidated into giving up bilingualism for their child if their instincts tell them it may be beneficial. As every child is different, though, in some cases bilingualism may not be the best path. In our case it was clear that our son felt that being English was a part, perhaps the dominant part, of his identity. It’s hard to know how identities are formed exactly, but my guess is that he used being English to explain to himself why he was different from his classmates.
If parents can find time to do the research, they will discover, as I did, that there is no scientific basis to support the idea that bilingualism delays the linguistic and cognitive development of children with ASD. Study alone, though, may not be enough to give you the confidence that whatever you choose is right for your child. It really helps to reach out to others, whether other families in the same situation, therapists, teachers or anyone who will listen. Eventually you are likely to find and get to know people whose experiences are close to your own. Having this kind of connection was certainly a great source of strength for us. The best kind of ally in this situation is someone who has already been there.
How can people contact you or find more resources?
Facebook group: Bilingual Children with Developmental Differences
More information about my research, as well as articles on Bilingualism and Autism: https://eugene-ryan-2i8u.squarespace.com/about
Related post at Bilingual Monkeys: Can Children with Special Needs Be Bilingual?
The Impact of Bilingual Environments on Language Development in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Catherine Hambly & Eric Fombonne
To Be or Not to Be Bilingual: Autistic Children from Multilingual Families by Tamar Kremer-Sadlik
Eugene teaches at a university in Aichi Prefecture, Japan and researches the effects of bilingualism on the linguistic and cognitive development of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He has lived in Japan for more than 15 years, and his wife is Japanese. They have two children, a five-year-old son who is mildly autistic and a typically developing three-year-old daughter, and are seeking to raise both children bilingually.
Continue following Eugene’s story at Interview with a Father Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism, Part 2.