MBA Mommy

Part MBA, Part MRS, Part MOM…..All ME

Bilingual Aspie

Posted by mbamommy on August 13, 2011

S and Z are attending a language immersion school.  They’re going to learn Mandarin…or rather…are already learning Mandarin because we put them into the camp this summer to give them a little head start on the transition.

This was a difficult decision for us.  Not because we weren’t sure whether we wanted the kids to be bilingual (we talked about getting a Mandarin speaking au pair before Z was even born) and not because we were concerned they wouldn’t be able to handle it intellectually.  And, frankly, we weren’t concerned with enrolling S any more than the standard parental anxiety of “Is this the right place for her?”.

No, we, of course, focused most of our discussions on whether a bilingual education was the right thing for a kiddo on the spectrum.  In our hearts, we were in love with the school.  We LOVED the idea of our little blonde hair, blue eyed, middle class middle America kiddos having a global education.  We think it’ll benefit them now and certainly help them stand out in the future.  And, given the way China is growing into such a global power we thought we’d give them that competitive edge as a gift before they even realize we’re doing it.

So, as is typical of J and I, we talked to everyone.  We weighed the pros and cons of private vs public schools, or rather, IEPs vs smaller classrooms.  We asked his IEP team at his old preschool – they gave it a thumbs up.  We talked to his private therapy team – they gave it a tentative thumbs up.  Their hesitation was based on the fact that at its core, autism is a communication disorder, and if it’s difficult enough for Z to communicate well in his native tongue, what sort of additional obstacles will be present if you start asking him to do things in a different language?  They were concerned he’d get frustrated and regress back to his old ways of lashing out, hitting, kicking, or just plain falling limp on the floor…which is a big concern given how well he’s been doing.

I even had the honor of asking Dr. Temple Grandin what she thought of putting an Aspie in a language immersion program at a conference I went to.  True to form, she cut straight to the chase.  She said “Is he verbal”.  To which I responded, “He’s verbose.”  And she thought about it for about 10 seconds and then she said, “I think you should do it.  It’ll make him employable when he’s older.”  Gotta love those uber-direct conversations you get to have with folks on the spectrum. 🙂

We spoke to family, friends, and each other.  We read a lot.  Most articles and studies focused on challenges and strategies for teachers of older children (junior high and above) just beginning to learn a second language.  They talked a lot about the teacher’s needs to understand the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses, how to make the work being taught interesting and relevant, etc etc.  (Side note: isn’t that what a good teacher’s supposed to do anyway?  Just sayin’).

The more interesting articles and studies we read discussed the use of echolalia in teaching an Aspie a new language and how it could be helpful to them.  Well…that was a good sign, right?  Z’s got delayed echolalia down cold.  And, then we started reading articles like —>this one<— that talked about pathways in the brain that open up if a child learns another language at an earlier age.  And that bilingualism could allow a child to develop a keener insight into what and why people are saying things.

So…wait….let me get this straight.  By exposing Z to multiple languages it could actually HELP his ability to read people and understand social cues?  Well, knock me down with a feather.

So…aside from our interest in having our children learn a second language, I was extremely impressed with the school.  When I first went to tour the school, I met with the Academic Director.  He gave me his pitch and I said, “Yes I’ve definitely drank the Kool-Aid on the benefits of being multi-lingual.  But, let me tell you about my kiddo……”

He listened politely to everything I had to say (which took a while, I’m fairly long-winded).  And he responded by saying that no, they don’t have services set up to support an IEP.  But, yes, they do actually have 2 kiddos on the spectrum currently enrolled and are doing great.  And, that he’d like to speak with Z’s teams and go to his current school and do an observation before he’d admit him into the school….to make sure everyone thought it’d be a good fit.  And, then, once school started, if we thought it would help to have outside support come in for Z and for his teacher’s we could certainly set that up.  And, would that be ok?

So….wait….let me get this straight.  You’re going to take time to go to MY kid’s school and meet him.  And talk to MY kid’s team.  And work with ME to make this experience a successful one?  Well, knock me down with another feather.  And then pick me back up and let me sign on the dotted line.

Smaller classes means less external distractions for my sensory overloaded little guy.  Lower teacher/student ratios mean more individualized help.  Being immersed in a new language means that every kid is going to struggle with understanding directions – thereby potentially leveling the playing field for Z.  More challenging curriculum means that my brainy little man would be constantly challenged.  And, did I mention he seems to enjoy learning different languages?

So when the Academic Director went to observe Z, J and I were nervous…was he going to have a good day?  Was he going to have a tough time listening and sitting in Circle time?  (Good Lord, who knew we’d start wringing our hands about our kiddos performance so early in life?)  Well, Z not only behaved perfectly but he also remembered the Director, said hello to him and impressed him with his memory….which is a huge asset when you’re learning Mandarin because you have to memorize so many characters.

So, we’re in.  School hasn’t started yet and J and I can barely contain our excitement.  The kiddos are already coming home with cute little Mandarin songs and new words every day.  They love teaching us the words and correcting our pronunciation (apparently, after a certain age, those pathways in your brain close and you can’t physically make certain foreign sounds so we butcher the language).  Our family dinner conversations have a smattering of French, Spanish and Mandarin already.  Once S and Z figure out that they have a secret way of talking to each other that Mommy and Daddy can’t keep up with, we may have some issues.  But, until then, it is just pure joy.

Yes, sending them to a private school is expensive.  But, J and I agree that it’s an investment in their future.  And one we’d gladly pay out for….even if it means that we won’t necessarily take grand vacations and when we do buy a home, we’ll need to factor in tuition costs into what we can afford to buy.

So….smaller house and bilingual kids?  Yeah, I think that’s a good trade off.

9 Responses to “Bilingual Aspie”

  1. Heather said

    Wow, what a wonderful gift for them! I can tell you this – having learned Spanish and English at the same time, my bilingualism has turned out to be my greatest job-related asset. Kudos for doing it for your kids!

    • mbamommy said

      Thanks, Heather! That’s so great to hear how much it’s helped you. I know it’s something that’s really helped my brother and something I definitely feel that I’m lacking. 🙂 Don’t you also speak Russian?

  2. Heather said

    Yes. And French. But I learned those later, so I’m not anywhere near as fluent as I am in Spanish. Spanish, for me, sounds like English – I don’t even think about it. When I worked at a law office, I had to learn those words, but I just looked them up and that was that. Easy. I really do believe that learning Spanish as a small child helped open up those pathways in my brain, like you talked about, giving me greater facility with language in general. So although I’m no expert, I really do think this is gonna be huge for *both* your kids! 🙂

  3. Heather said

    p.s. My dad always told me I should have learned Mandarin instead of Russian, and he was right. So good forward thinking on that!

    • mbamommy said

      Honestly I have to give J props for that. I was 100% on board but he was the main driver when choosing between Spanish and Mandarin. Thx so much for the strong commendations!!!! 🙂

  4. This is truly amazing. I can’t wait to hear more about how the school year goes. I have fascinated.

    We have friends who are in a French Immersion school. The little girl has speech/articulation problems (bad enough to see a therapist) and a very strong Boston accent. She speaks the most beautiful French with no hint of accent or artic problems.

    Granted, speech problems are very different than being on the spectrum, but it’s a pretty neat example of what brains can do when kids learn another language at a young age.

    I’m jealous you got to meet Dr. Grandin. I had to read one of her books for grad school and she’s been a hero of mine ever since.

    Good luck and keep us all posted!

  5. […] the flip side of that.  Before we found our fabulous wonderful immersion school, I did a lot of research into different school options.  I looked at public, private, charter and […]

  6. JJ's List said

    […] diagnosis in May 2010, you can’t help but feel the warm fuzzies with every triumph too. Take Bilingual Aspie, a post about finding a language immersion school for her kids to learn Mandarin, and Gifts of […]

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