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Teaching English to Autistic Learners

This page deals with the learning difficulties related to autism spectrum disorders. You will find a brief description of ASDs, including some notes on Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. This page includes signs and symptoms of autism as well as strategies for teachers who have autistic kids in their classes. The content is written specifically for English language teachers, but may be of interest to educators and parents in general.
autism spectrum disorder (noun): a wide spectrum of neurodevelopment disorders that result in language, social and behavioural difficulties

What is Autism?

Autism is short for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The word autism comes from the Greek word self. ASDs include a wide range of developmental disorders, ranging from moderate to severe. Some people with ASDs are non verbal, while others are socially impaired but intellectually gifted.

ASDs are usually diagnosed before the age of three and are more prevalent in males. While the negative symptoms of ASD may improve greatly over time and with therapy, the disorder remains with a person for a lifetime. And, despite being called a "disorder" there are many positive characteristics and abilities that autistic people posses.

Children with ASD often have one subject that they are extremely interested in. They may also have one skill that they excel at. At least 25% are classified as high-functioning (HFA). High-functioning autistic children typically develop normal language skills over time, even though this is often noticeably delayed.

Asperger's syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism. People with Asperger's tend to have strong or even gifted language skills, and are therefore well-suited to foreign language study. Those with Asperger's do have social impairments that can interfere with learning communicative skills in general. They may dislike or have difficulty working in groups. Maintaining eye contact may also be extremely difficult.

Cause of Autism

The specific cause of ASD remains unknown. However, studies suggest that it is linked to both genetics and environmental factors. Many scientists believe ASDs result from a disruption of prenatal brain development. If one identical twin has autism, there is a 90% chance the other twin will as well.

Symptoms and Signs

Since ASDs include a wide spectrum of disorders, ranging from severe to moderate, there is also a wide range of associated signs and symptoms. As any parent or teacher of an autistic child will attest, there are positive and negative characteristics that go along with autism. Here are a wide variety of signs and symptoms that may be present or noticeable in an autistic student:

Autism in the Classroom

Most students with autism require a specific style of teaching and a supportive learning environment. In most cases, autistic students have an individualized education program (IEP) that parents and teachers develop together. Some students may require a teaching aid at all times, while others will require extra help during certain periods or classes. Many autistic students flourish in a regular classroom, while others perform better in one-on-one or small class settings.

Problems typically arise with autistic students when there is a lack of communication between the parents and the educators and when teachers are not supported or equipped with tools, resources, and proper training. Parents often become experts in their child's individual needs, and can provide excellent support for teachers. Finding peers who work well with autistic students is also important.

Autism and Language Learning

Many parents who have children with autism wonder if it’s a bad idea to communicate with them in more than one language. Since ASDs often involve language impairment, some parents don't want to add an unnecessary burden by exposing an autistic child to more than one language.

Without fully understanding current research, some general practitioners have recommended that parents of autistic kids speak English rather than a home language in a country where English is the official language. However, there is little evidence to prove that exposing an autistic child to a second language will impede language learning. In fact, studies suggest that reducing a language impaired child’s exposure to a home language can make it even more difficult for the child to socialize even within his or her own family. By not using the mother tongue, parents exclude their child from conversations. Autistic children typically struggle socially, and are more likely to pick up language from their parents than their peers. Parents with a low proficiency of a second language may have difficulty communicating with their autistic children. If these parents choose to make English their primary source of communication, this can create more language problems. As with all language learners, autistic children need regular exposure to both languages.

Autism often comes with a literal understanding of words. Understanding colloquialisms and idiomatic English may be very difficult for autistic language learners. On the other hand, many students on the autism spectrum excel at memorization, and may be able to acquire a large vocabulary, making it easier to understand and replicate formal written and spoken language than their language learning peers. Autistic students appreciate rules and structures and may enjoy learning the grammar of a second language.

Strategies for Teachers of Autistic Language Learners

Useful links
Foreign Languages and Autism
Autistic Spectrum Disorders and learning foreign languages (PDF)
To Be or Not to Be Bilingual: Autistic Children from Multilingual Families (PDF)

Written for EnglishClub by: Tara Benwell