Episode 13: Dr. Bérengère Digard & Sonny Hallett, Bilingualism and Autism

In this episode, in honour of World Autism Awareness month, we are joined by Dr Bérengère Digard and Sonny Hallett to talk about Austin and Bilingualism in research and real life.

Dr Bérengère Digard has just finished her PhD in Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focused on how being bilingualism shapes the way autistic and non-autistic adults understand social information and relate to other people, in terms of lived experiences, mental skills, and brain networks. During her PhD she wrote the PhD blog, ‘PhD & Stuff’. She is currently working as an Engagement Officer at The Patrick Wild Centre.  She is also a Bilingualism Matters volunteer and member of the podcast team. Twitter: @BerengereDigard

Sonny Hallett is the co-founder and mental health advisor of AMASE, Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh. They are also a trainee counsellor and autistic advocate. You can read their medium piece on autistic connection and communication here. Twitter: @scrappapertiger

Listen here!

Episode Transcript

[Brittany] Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Much Language Such Talk. In today’s episode we are celebrating International Autism Awareness Day, which was on April 2nd, and you’ll be listening to me, Brittany, as I speak with two wonderful guests, Sonny Hallett and Dr. Bérengère Digard, about bilingualism and autism. Sonny Hallett is the co- founder and mental health advisor of Amase, Autistic Mutual Aid Society, Edinburgh. They’re also a training counselor and autistic advocate. Dr. Digard just finished her PhD in psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focused on how being bilingual shapes the way autistic and non-autistic adults understand social information and relate to other people in terms of lived experiences, mental skills and brain networks. During her PhD, she wrote the blog, PhD and Stuff, and she is currently working as an engagement officer at the Patrick Wilds Center. Welcome Bérengère and Sonny.

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[Bérengère] Hello

[Sonny] Hello

[Brittany] Thank you for joining us today. So before we get started, something that’s quite important in particular, as we are a language- related podcast is clarifying the language that is appropriate to be using. So Sonny, what is the way that people within the community prefer to be referred to? Is it person- centered language ‘autistic person’? Or is it rather a ‘person with autism’? What is the preferred language?

[Sonny] so within the autistic community, which is the community of people who are autistic, there is a general preference and of course, individuals are going to vary but there’s a general preference for identity first language and that is autistic person, as opposed to person first language which might be person with autism. And you know, you might meet people who would prefer something else. And that’s absolutely fine and valid. And there are lots of good reasons why other people in the disability community might prefer person first. But for autistic people, our identity is for a lot of us, very important. And one thing that a lot of us say is, you know, if you need to be reminded that we’re people then we have a bigger problem.

[Brittany] From that I take it that you would prefer autistic person moving forward, rather than person with…

[Sonny] I’m an autistic person. Yeah.

[Brittany] Perfect. So my first question is going to be directed for Bérengère, you’ve just finished your PhD. Could you explain a little bit about your research and how you got interested in the topic?

[Bérengère] First, I’m going to say how I got interested in the topic, because that’s a bit of an odd one. So my background is in biology and neurobiology, and I used to research dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. And it’s pretty much what I was supposed to do as well for my PhD. And during my gap year when I was looking at potential ideas for PhD projects, looking at very much brain stuff and aging brain, I just randomly came across the interview. It was a five minutes long interview of an autistic multilingual writer who was talking about his new book. So his name is Josef Schovanec. And it was just five minutes, he was talking about his book about autistic multilingual characters, and I was mesmerized, and I can’t even explain it. I just got hooked. And the next day, I bought the book, and I read it in one day. And that was it. That was what I wanted to do. It was like a revelation in my life. And I can’t even explain it really, I just connected so much with this book. And I decided that I don’t know if it’s something that I can do. But if I can, then I would do it. So I just looked at what existed in some of research in the field, the very general field of bilingualism in autism. And at the time, in 2015, there was pretty much nothing I think there were like two papers. And in Europe, the only study that I found was one poster, not even a paper, on bilingual parents’ experiences of choosing or not choosing bilingualism for their autistic or non-autistic child. So that was not really in my field. Because I mean, I do brain stuff and neuroscience stuff. But I emailed the researcher who worked on that study, and said that’s not exactly what I want to do. But that’s close enough. That’s the best I could find. So should we work together? And she said yes, that was Sue Fletcher- Watson. And that’s how I came to do that. Just because I read a book that just entirely changed everything that I was supposed to do with my research career.

[Brittany] Wow, that’s, that’s so interesting. Just five minutes of your life and then new career path. That’s wonderful.

[Bérengère] Exactly.

[Brittany] Super interesting. Yeah.

[Bérengère] And so my research that I ended up doing, I wanted to understand whether bilingualism really could change the cognitive side of things and brain side of things and people, just generally because there’s all of this debate, like does bilingualism do something for the brain and everything. So I was interested in that. But I was also interested in whatever happens for neurotypical brain, what happens for an autistic brain, what happens to an autistic mind that sees the world differently to a neurotypical mind. And so I wanted to do that, and especially focusing on the social processes and the social aspect of it, looking at it from really like, multi-dimensional, so not just the neurological aspect of it, but also cognition, and very importantly, the actual life. Because whatever you find at the neurological level, if it does not really have any benefit at the life level, then there was not much point. So yes, I really wanted to look at what’s going on, the full experience.

[Brittany] So similar to what you’ve just described your research is based on, we had a comment from someone on social media, Jess, who asked about seeing a lot of studies around autism, focusing largely on children and developmental language skills, not so much in adults. So was your research focusing on adults or children or people across the lifespan?

[Bérengère] So I decided to only look at adults. Well, indeed most research on autism just generally is on children. Sure, because I mean, it’s an important developmental phase, just generally, in life. Childhood is very important, but we spend most of our life not as children.

[Brittany] That’s true. Yes. (laughs)

[Bérengère] So I felt like it was important to look at what was going on in adulthood. Also, because maybe things take time to settle, maybe things take time to just become bilingual. Looking at adults allowed me to actually allow for time to happen, and experiences to develop and things like that. I was also interested in seeing if there is hopefully an advantage to being bilingual, does this advantage actually still exist in adulthood? Because if you see something in childhood, but then in adulthood, then there’s nothing left of it in terms of that advantage. It’s interesting, but it’s not what I was interested in.

[Brittany] So if someone was interested in autism with people who are older in age, what sort of resources or literature might they be directed towards, besides perhaps your dissertation?

[Bérengère] To date, I think my thesis is the only large piece of research done on autistic bilingual adults. And this is very sad, because it’s 2020. Like, the world should not have been waiting for me to come and do this research. Really. I mean, there are a few case studies and it’s highly polyglot autistic people. And most autistic bilingual people are not polyglots, they’re just bilingual people. So it’s interesting to look at the language skills of these polyglots. But it’s not representative of just most of autistic people, really, but yes, for now, mostly my thesis, but new studies are coming, slowly but surely.

[Brittany] Very good. Following from that, what then would you say are some common assumptions about autism and bilingualism that recent research, meaning your research, has revealed to be untrue?

[Bérengère] I’d say that considering that I keep on getting tagged in all of this tweets, apparently, just that they exists. Yes, that is just the first thing, I get, like, almost not weekly, but almost tagged in stuff like people thinking that being autistic means you can’t be bilingual. And then people saying, Well, I don’t know, she did an entire PhD thesis on the topic. So I feel like they must exist. Otherwise, she would have studied something else. No, that’s fair. Like I would not have spent four years of my life looking at, like how bilingualism changed the life of people if they didn’t exist. So that’s the first thing. Yes, autistic people can be bilingual. Sonny is an autistic bilingual person. So clearly they exist. That’s the first thing. And there are other loads of misconceptions. But that might be the first one. And indeed, for example, when I was creating my project, my thesis, I also proposed it as a collaboration between my French University in Lyon, and here in Edinburgh, and at the interview, on whether they would give me the funding or not, I spent 10 minutes explaining my project and my idea, and then the 10 minutes of questions, were essentially just: “but so you want to, uuh, recruit autistic bilingual people?” – Yes. “But they can’t because you see, they’re autistic?” –  Yes, they are. “So they can’t be bilingual. You understand that?” – Yes, they can. “No, no, they can’t.” – Yes, they can. So I’ve quickly realized that I would not get the funding, right. Yeah. So yeah, that is it. I don’t know if, Sonny, you have others that you came across other assumptions about bilingualism in autism that are very much not true.

[Sonny] Yeah. I mean, I find that quite funny in a way that you know, you’re talking about, like people will tag you and sort of be like, and I just think, did any of them like either, they could discover autistic Twitter and be like, hey, asking autistics. Any of you bilingual

[Bérengère] Yeah. Exactly. Like for all of them, I want to say, but, but I know so many, do you want their details? Do you want to talk to them? Because I mean, I’m pleased that you feel the need to tag a researcher, but also, they’re there, just talk to them, you don’t need me to tell you that they do exist.

[Sonny] I think what you touched on earlier as well, Bérengère, about, you know, how there are polyglots. And I think, maybe a slightly more nuanced misunderstanding is that we have to be really into languages to be bilingual. And like, I really don’t, I’m not that into languages, like, it’s interesting. I like words, but like, I grew up with two languages, like lots of bilingual kids do. That’s it. So there’s lots of kind of, quote on quote, sort of ‘normal ways of being bilingual’. No, I mean, not to say that, you know, what I’m saying is that you don’t have to have a sort of, you know, savant, or super interest in language to be bilingual and autistic, just as you don’t for non-autistic people.

[Brittany] I think that’s a really interesting point. So a lot of the assumptions that I know about, or misconceptions is this sort of savant prototype. And I think that’s a really good point that that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, there will be people like that, but that’s not going to be representative of the larger community on the whole. So what languages did you grow up with Sonny?

[Sonny] So I grew up with English and Mandarin Chinese, my mum is from China. And my dad is from the UK. And it was actually quite funny, because I think my mom mostly used English with me and my dad mostly use Chinese. They’re both they’re both bilingual and both fluent. So… And I went to school, like regular school in the UK and in China, my parents were quite keen not to send me to any international schools, they wanted me to, like, grow up with the language as it’s spoken, in both countries.

[Brittany] Very interesting. Bérengère, you are bilingual as well, if you’d like to mention your languages.

[Bérengère] Sure. Well, my first language is French, because I’m French. And I was born in France, and my dad is French. My second language is Spanish, though it’s quite rusty at the moment. And my grandparents could not speak French at all. So we speak Spanish with them. And I learned English at school. And now I live using English all the time.

[Brittany] Right. Very nice. Okay, so going back more to our discussion of autism and bilingualism, I’ll direct this towards you first, Sonny. Were autistic people and also happened to be bilingual have any sort of advantage or disadvantage in learning languages as a result of being an autistic person?

[Sonny] So I wouldn’t say that it was, I think, you know, autistic people tend to sort of inhabit the extremes quite a lot. So while I don’t think that there’s any kind of specific rule about when we find that easier, or harder, I mean, I guess there might be more research on that, Bérengère. But I think that one thing that does define a lot of autistic experience is that, you know, if we’re very, very into something, then we might find it easier. So when that comes to language acquisition in a sort of more school based way, or a sort of, you know, interest based way, then, like I said earlier, you know, that’s why you sort of get polyglots who are really into language, or they’re very motivated, but I think asides from that, you know, it’s the social sort of, social difficulties can get in the way. So a lot of autistic people, for example, get made fun of for our accents, or our way of talking. I grew up being told that I spoke very posh, and very correctly, and actually, that was just me, like, trying to be accurate.

[Brittany] Oh, interesting. Okay. Yeah.

[Sonny] Not really kind of fitting in with what the other kids how they were talking. But yeah, I mean, I think in a way, it’s possible that being autistic did make me find language classes in school harder, just because there was a lot of social stuff. There’s a lot of kind of, you know, getting in pairs for conversations, and I just found that terrifying.

[Brittany] Right. Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah. So even just the way of teaching with group work, that sort of thing would be something that’s not necessarily attractive to you, I would say.

[Sonny] Yeah. But I wouldn’t say it impacted my, you know, organic acquisition of English and Chinese, for example.

[Brittany] Interesting. And from the research perspective, Bérengère, is there anything there?

[Bérengère] I mean, you might be surprised to know that there’s not much research on the topic (laughter) I know, I know. So all I have is really from my first study, Sonny, you might have taken part in that one.

[Sonny] I think I did.

[Bérengère] And the my first study was an online survey, and I had a lot of like, qualitative questions as well. It’s like, Hey, tell me about your life. And some of my participants actually said, well, learning, like the learning environment was key for me to be able to learn the language. For example, you had some people who would say that they were only able to learn languages actually at school because it was very, you had the rules you had the grammar rules that you could learn and you could follow it was all very well structured could see the patterns across the language and across language and everything. And that is a way that for them worked really well. And actually, some of them say it’s funny, Sonny, that your experience with the conversation is, because some of them would say that actually, they really enjoyed having these sorts of like, scripts of conversation to practice. Because it was meant to, you’re supposed to do that when you’re learning the language. And that was for them, like a little tool that they could reuse basically. And so they Yeah, they really liked the actual being taught the language. And they said, they were absolutely unable to learn a language just from the environment, while others actually, it was the other way around. And they found the learning at school very, like, they just could not, they really were stuck at, learning at school. And it was very, like stressful for them. They were so afraid of making mistakes and everything, just very uncomfortable experience. And they had none of the languages that they had tried to learn at school stuck, while the languages that they had learned in the environment, they got on really, really well, and were fluent in these languages that they acquired just, just by being there. So I think the main result here is that it’s not a one size fits all.

[Brittany] Exactly, yeah.

[Bérengère] Just, people learn differently. And something that would be the best strategy for one autistic person would not be necessarily the best strategy for another autistic person.

[Sonny] Actually, it’s quite a common trope in a way in the autistic community where we talk about, you know, some people find going to another country that speaks another language really helpful, because anything that they might seem socially weird in their home country, it’s just put down to them not speaking the language and being a foreigner

[Brittany] Oh, yeah.

[Sonny] So that can be really helpful for some people, and they end up being very immersed. And my dad has, shares a lot of autistic traits. I don’t know, you know, where he feels in terms of his neurology, but he moved to China in his 20s and is fluent to the point now where you couldn’t tell that he has an accent. But I think that there was a sense, you know, when he moved, people saw that he was different, but they weren’t like, you’re weird that you’re different. They’re like, Oh, you’re different, because you’re a foreigner. But well done on the speaking!

[Bérengère]  I had loads of participants who also said that that going abroad was just liberating, ‘cause they were not exactly like they could be so themselves, because none of the quirks or oddities, or like things that is not like the other people around them is just immediately, oh, no, you’re just from abroad, that’s fine. And that’s just very liberating. And on that note, there was also another participant who said that actually, they loved to travel abroad with their friends and families, because abroad, there were the most suited at communicating because they were the one who knew, like two or three languages, and so the entire group was just relying on them to communicate and they were then the one being able to communicate with people and like link the group, like socially with the locals and all of that. So that can also happen.

[Brittany] So following from what we’ve just been discussing, around the literature in bilingualism, on the whole, there has been some suggestion that there are certain social or cognitive benefits from knowing and using multiple languages. From the research perspective, or from your experience, Sonny, do you think autistic people benefit from bilingualism in that way?

[Sonny] Okay, well, I’ll leave this to Bérengère, to talk about more of the, you know, in terms of benefits and sort of more the literature. More anecdotally, and within the community and my own experience, part of it is just I think there’s a benefit to not restricting people, you know, it’s that there was definitely a history of and continues to sort of, where families who would otherwise be bilingual are told, oh your kid’s autistic, so you should stick to one language. And that could mean cutting a person off from a whole chunk of their culture, and that even their extended family. And I mean, the other part of it is that I think it does give us more tools. I think a lot of autistic people do and really enjoy wordplay. And some of that is about accuracy. Some of that is about actually being really wanting to understand what it is that people mean, or what we mean when words are being used. Because actually a lot of assumptions that people can safely make with each other don’t work with us. So some of the word plays around that to kind of go well, what is it that you really mean? It’s not that we hear ‘raining cats and dogs’ and think, oh, there’s literally raining cats and dogs. It’s we’re like, well, that’s a funny thing to say, you know, like, I wonder what it is that they mean there about the quality of the rain. And when it comes to bilingualism, I think you know, certainly for me, I think oh, there’s a Chinese word that better encapsulates this idea or this feeling or this, than the English word or vice versa. And I think sort of there’s something about language development there as well when one part can feed you know, back and forth with the other, one language can with the other and give me kind of more ways to express things and more creativity because I see that actually, it’s all relative, you know, language, there’s no fixed meaning to any idea that it can be expressed a number of different ways. And there’s one thing I’ve always found interesting is that I had no issues with reading and writing in English. But, and a lot of autistic people do struggle with things like handwriting legibility and stuff because of dexterity. And, but I was the bottom of the class with handwriting in Chinese. And I think it’s because Chinese characters are very precise. And they have to be written very carefully, in a certain way, very detailed. And the drilling that I got doing that meant that I had no issues writing in English as like 26 letters, that’s, that’s nothing!

[Brittany] Piece of cake in comparison. Yeah

[Sonny] Yeah. So that masked my autism actually a bit when I came back to the UK, it masked, you know, people didn’t realize I think that that’s something I could struggle with. But yeah, I mean, all of these things, I think they help you, you know, having extra languages can give you additional skills at times.

[Brittany] And I really liked the part that you were discussing, of opening the door for creativity, and just understanding and being able to pick and choose words that actually fit what you’re trying to express. And I think that’s something that’s quite universal. That’s what languages do is they open the door for communication, but also your own personal understanding and the way that you might view things in the world and capture that with words. So Bérengère, what would you say about that?

[Bérengère] First, I really want to say that indeed, all of the things Sonny said, like, in my research, just what I found, I had loads of participants said that being bilingual had just allowed them to know that they were, I can’t remember how they expressed it like, but it was true where they were feeling and what they were experiencing, because there might not be a word to express it in their first language. But there was a word in another language, and it was acknowledge and it was, it was real. And it was really, really beautiful to see that actually, yes, just having access to another language, allowed them to really better understand themselves by putting a word on something, for example, and that was only possible because they knew more than one language. And same for opening doors. I agree as well. I had so many of my participants who said that, for example, their job they had thanks to the fact that they knew several languages or education, for example, things like just leisure as well, that they could, for example, if they don’t have English as a first language, being fluent in English, allow them to play video games with other people and make other friends. So basically, all of the same things that are beneficial in terms of the life aspect of it for any bilingual person also applies to autistic people really, just very straightforward here is people with languages.

[Brittany] Exactly.

[Bérengère]  Now because you also had a question you have more for the cognitive aspects of it and the benefits. So again, there is not much research on the topic.

[Brittany] Surprise!

[Bérengère] I know I know. So for now, the main finding is that there’s no detrimental effect, like it’s not worse for an autistic child to be raised bilingually compared to monolingually. You can have some delay in terms of language development, but like we see for any bilingually raised child, there’s always a bit of delay, it’s just that for autistic children, there might also be other language difficulties. So it just like adds up, and that can scare parents and practitioners. But it’s pretty much typical process like process of development when you have two languages. So that is what can be observed. But that’s really the only real negative effects of bilingualism in terms of cognition or things like that. There are some studies on executive skills in children. Again, no detrimental effect of bilingualism, there are some studies on more autistic traits and social functioning. Again, no detrimental effects, even sometimes the I think that when that was a study with teenagers, and actually for social functioning, whatever that implies, but whatever measure they used in that study, actually, the bilingual teenagers were just scoring higher, so doing better on that one scale that was used. So, to say that it’s not detrimental, and even possibly some positive aspects as well. And the, so in my study, I looked at social cognition, perspective taking in particular, so when you take the perspective of somebody else, and so I mean, my the analysis that I did was not comparing monolinguals and bilinguals. I just took loads of bilingual people. And I looked at each of these person’s profiles and see which feature of bilingualism was linked with the proficiency at the task that I was using. And I saw that actually, there was an effect of the age of acquisition of the second language. There was no effect of like the proficiency in the languages or how much they use the languages. But there was this effect of the age of acquisition, meaning that actually, those who were, who acquired their second language, the autistic bilingual people who acquired their second language earlier actually scored better, scored higher at the test, than autistic bilingual people, possibly equally fluent, who had learned a second language later on in childhood, which could suggest that actually growing up with two languages had some beneficial social cognitive effects in childhood during development that was actually still visible in adulthood, after years and years and years of having reached their final cognitive skills. Yeah, so that was just one skill that was just perspective taking. So it doesn’t mean that there might not be some, some sort of detrimental effects in other skills. But, as I explained, used to explain to my participants is like, having a detrimental effect in some aspect doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Like, for example, if you ask me to list all the titles of, I don’t know, all the Harry Potter books, for example, it would take me longer because I have to think, wait, no, which language, which language, because I read them in three different languages. So it would slow me down to know several languages where obviously a monolingual person would do that much faster. Does it mean that it’s bad to be multilingual? No. So yes, the main thing here is, bilingualism does not cause a cognitive delay, like it was thought for neurotypical children 20 years ago. And today, we’re showing that it’s also pretty much the same no cognitive delay to being raised bilingually, and possibly actually some cognitive advantageous for some skills, just like for neurotypical children, because actually, the results that I found was that it was actually exactly the same relationship of the benefits of early bilingualism on that one specific skill, or exactly the same in the neurotypical group and in the autistic group.

[Brittany] Interesting. So that sort of connects to a question that we got from social media as well, talking about age of acquisition. So in the broader literature, as you’ve already just discussed, there’s a big discussion around age of acquisition as in when you acquire the language, if there’s this so called critical period whereby after a certain age, maybe you can’t acquire language, etc. Do you sort of mentioned just now that you have looked at this age of acquisition factor, and likely the answer to this next question will be no, considering that there’s not a lot of research on adults? Is there any research or evidence saying that there’s a different impact for adults, learning an additional language versus autistic children learning a different language?

[Bérengère] Now, you might be surprised to know that we don’t know.

[Brittany] Surprise again!

[Bérengère] Surprise, there’s no research. So for the process that I was looking at, the main effect was indeed the age, suggesting a sensitive critical period for that. But we know from research in neurotypical people that actually, for example, for executive skills, it seems to be more of the environment and how you use the languages. So if you more into a dual language environment or, like single language environment, that is seems to be the thing that influences this process. Possibly, it’s the same for autistic people, we don’t know. So the fact that for one process, the effect is in childhood, maybe for another the effects is a different aspect to being bilingual, because there are so many different ways of being bilingual, they would be linked with different possible advantages later on in life. Again, there’s no research on that.

[Brittany] I mean, this has to be expected, I think, given our conversation so far. So in general, whether you are an autistic person or not, it can be quite difficult to understand verbal and nonverbal cues, especially when you have a different culture at play. There you have neural typical person such as myself, if I learn another language and then go to another country, it’s going to be an adjustment for me culturally. In your experience Sonny, anywhere from your research Bérengère, do you feel that there is an advantage or disadvantage to an autistic person being bilingual in this cultural adjustment between different languages, understanding verbal and nonverbal cues?

[Sonny] Good question, I think that in some ways, I think a lot of this sort of thinking around, I’m gonna roll back a bit. But I think, you know, a lot of the thinking around autism and why autistic people struggle with social stuff, and nonverbal cues and verbal cues, you know, is like people I think, have for a long time been looking at it in the wrong way. Like as in they sort of look at autistic people and they go, Okay, this person is struggling with communication and social interaction. Therefore, we must make it simpler for them. Therefore, you know, they can’t acquire it the same way as everyone else, we must kind of just break it down, teach them social skills, you know, don’t let them learn another language. And I think that’s kind of sort of looking at the wrong solution because it’s, it’s more that autistic people have what Damian Milton, who is an autistic academic with the course of the double empathy problem, there is a mismatch. There is a difference in how we communicate between autistic people and non-autistic people. And there’s some really great research about how you know, autistic people are able to sort of pass on information between each other, between, with other autistic people just as well, if not possibly better, just as well probably, as chains of non-autistic people talking to each other, and passing on information. It’s the mixed groups that where you get a problem. So, in that context, you know, I think so part of that, so the answer to that, in a way is that we need to just make the environment work for the autistic person, right, we need to have sort of verbal and nonverbal cues work in a way that the individual can understand. And when you grow up for the lifetime of being told, how could you get it wrong? Why did you get it wrong, you can’t possibly feel that, it builds up a lot of trauma, you know, there’s a lot of sort of difficulty around that which can cause greater social difficulties further down the line. And that was one thing that I’m learning, in my training to be a counselor, for example, is I have no difficulty reading other people and connecting with other people, irrespective of your neurology, as long as I feel confident in myself and can do the expressing on my terms. So I might not use emotion words, I might use metaphor, and going into now what your original question, which I think was about reading cues in a second language. So autistic people, yeah, might struggle when it comes to communication in the context of cues. But in a way, there’s a possibility that in the new environments, there’s a more level playing field, because it’s like everyone’s struggling a bit like I discovered that when the pandemic hit and we all moved on to zoom, everyone was awkward. And I was like, Oh, good. This is how I feel all the time. And now I feel kind of normal. (laughter) And, you know, I think my experience of traveling in other countries where I don’t speak the language, I have struggled compared with some people who are able to just kind of go off body language, and not speak any words at all. But that’s partly to do with my own insecurities around that, like my own fear of being so badly frightened by social interactions in the past, I’d be quite curious to know how I would manage now. And I think, yeah, I mean, there’s, there’s (laughs) a lot of factors at play as my very convoluted answer to that.

[Bérengère] That is such an interesting question, though. Like, I mean, possibly being if you’ve grown up in two cultures, you have like two sets of social body language that you can use and like, hope for the best. But even then, possibly, it doesn’t apply but I mean, even just already you coming from the US, Brittany, and then me coming from France, and we’re in the UK, it’s just like, the whole thing, just they threw me off like, the way they do facial expressions, they even like not necessarily verbal, but like intonation and stuff like that, like it took me a year and a half or so to adjust to. That’s how these people communicate. And I’m not even from very far away. So you are very far away from I am from very far away, but have the same native language as most people and found the same issue. Yeah. In particular, around things like sarcasm.  I feel like possibly for autistic people you’d have like, just like one more layer of just like really deep reflection as to what is going on. What are you trying to do? And, but that can also be an advantage in that autistic people are used to having to do this thinking for all of their interactions with non-autistic people. While for a neurotypical person traveling abroad is like the first time that a real shock of like, having to adjust to this new system, so possibly, it could go either way, really.

[Brittany] That’s an interesting point. Yeah.

[Bérengère] Like autistic people have a lot of practice of trying to make sense of whatever the person is trying to express in a very non obvious way.

[Sonny] And actually, there’s a nice example of, there’s a autistic conference run by and for autistic people every year called Autscape. In the UK, and occasionally non-autistic people have come along, and they are so confused. (laughter) They, I think, do very much feel like they’ve gone somewhere, like where people speak the same language, but the cultural norms are all different. And that’s just fascinating. Like, to me, that’s, you know, it’s like, because, like for autistic people, we show up and we’re like, oh, wow, this is so easy. You know, this is, this is so much easier. And actually, I think, you know, there’s something there Bérengère about, you know, what you’re talking about perspective taking as well. And the findings about perspective taking when it comes to bilingualism is that it kind of makes sense because a lot of autistic people are told very early on, well, if you’re not going to intuit these rules, we’re going to tell them to you, we’re going to tell you these are what the rules are, and then everyone goes around breaking them all the time. And that’s really confusing, but if you speak multiple languages and you’ve been in touch with multiple cultures, you learn, oh, it’s all relative. There are no hard and fast rules. And you learn that you just have to say, I mean, I remember growing up and thinking, Oh, yes, this person won’t think this because they’re not Chinese, that you know, they have a different cultural background. So they’re going to think this other thing. And you learn that perspective taking as part of just growing up without people saying, yeah, you’re getting it wrong, because I know there’s no wrong.

[Bérengère] Yeah, that’s great. I really hope that this is what is going on in my findings. And that indeed, like the there’s a lot of theories about autism, one of them is that perspective taking cannot and will not develop.  And my findings, like yes, but it did this, like it clearly, if becoming bilingual in childhood, and it had an effect, possibly, that was not due to explicit teaching, possibly, it was just the experience. So clearly, it did develop, because look at them, they’re doing it. That’s, I really hope that what is going on. But also I was gonna say, Sonny, I would love to see like a study ran at Autscape, or like seeing the social skills of neurotypical people in this setting, like the anti-, like the reverse study entirely, that would be amazing.

[Brittany] That would be fascinating. I bet the findings would be somewhat surprising for some people.

[Bérengère] Exactly.

[Sonny] I think at some point at Autscape, we would have to just get our captive neurotypicals. And, you know, poke at them and see what happens.

[Brittany] Yes, exactly.

[Bérengère] I think it wouldn’t be so great, like pretty much the same task that I have made, that I made you do like, you know, like, looking at the videos and like seeing and trying to make sense of what was going on. I would love to see the results of that.

[Brittany] So a question that we have from social media from Ute, who has asked: autism is a spectrum – What insights are there from research or experience concerning different kinds of autism? And ways in which children and adults acquire, learn or maintain different languages?

[Bérengère] I want to say that there’s not much research on that, but there is a little bit.

[Brittany] Oh, exciting.

[Bérengère] I know, a little bit like one study or two, you know, you have to really like reevaluate your perspective when you do that kind of research. So I mean, a lot of it as well, not necessarily research, but people who emailed me and told me about their stories. It’s true that I mean, autism is a spectrum many different kinds of skills strains in different domains. And for example, one type of thing that can be worrying for parents and practitioners alike. It’s when the child is non speaking in childhood, possibly later on as well. And then, oh my God, if the child is non speaking, what do we do? And there are two very different approaches to this situation. In a study actually done by Sarah Hampton and Sue Fletcher-Watson here in Edinburgh, you had the case of a parent who would just like, Okay, well, we’ll just going to go full on English and just reinforce that one language as much as possible, and hope for the best. So it was one strategy. And then the other strategy was actually somebody who emailed me to tell me about their experience. And that person had two children raised bilingually between, like in France with French and English. And it turns out that the second child was autistic and nonverbal, still is autistic, I don’t know, if the child is still non- speaking, I don’t know. But these persons as if it was like, well, my first child is bilingual, I’m not going to stop using my native language, because then that would be a loss for the other child. So we’re just going to keep on doing what we do. And if the child eventually speaks, cool, if the child doesn’t eventually speak, cool, doesn’t change really that much for us, we’re just going to keep on living our life as we have, and they did. And the actually, the child had a very interesting behavior in that in, in France, they would constantly watch their cartoons only in English, and the cartoons had to be in English. And then they moved back to the UK. And were the main language was then English. And the child decided to watch all of their cartoons in French. And while before it would have been like, absolutely a no-go to watch cartoons in French. And suddenly it was like, No, no, no, now we’re changing. We’re doing cartoons, cartoons in French, which is quite a typical attitude for bilingual children to just have one language that they really like for one activity, and then that’s it. So this non- speaking autistic child just was perfectly bilingual, happened to not speak, but that was just the only difference basically, they would have they would understand both, use each language with like, mean different context and by using I mean listening to so very typical bilingual child just happens to be non- speaking. Just to say that actually, it’s more being non- speaking was not blocking any access to bilingualism at all.

[Brittany] That’s super interesting. That was actually one of the questions that someone else had posed, specifically around people who maybe were non- speaking or non-verbal. I’m not sure what the right term for that is, whether or not they can still be bilingual. And clearly, as you’ve shown there, yes.

[Bérengère] Clearly that they can, yes. And I mean, I don’t know Sonny, but like, I have a lot of participants who said that they were also sometimes just still having quite a bit of non-verbalism in their life. And so being bilingual was just like, just one other thing for when they were speaking.

[Sonny] I think it’s interesting, you know, what you said about the sort of two completely contradictory approaches, or completely different opposite approaches. Because I think it’s, it’s understandable, isn’t it? If somebody is struggling with communication, you can see the parents being like, Oh, well, we don’t want to complicate it, you know, but actually, what that kind of does is it forces one approach on an individual, where actually what you want, if someone’s struggling as you give them choice, if the aim is for them to communicate, you give them as much choice as possible, not overwhelm them. But I mean, you see that the same with like, non- speaking kids who, you know, if you force them to speak, it causes a lot of pain and trauma, but if you give them say, the option of sign or, you know, picture boards, and like this, this communication comes, comes out, because if they want to communicate, just whatever, you know, whatever they need to do that. So, to me, it sort of, it doesn’t really make sense to kind of limit that, really. Obviously, I wouldn’t sort of want people to be forced to sort of speak more languages or to do more languages than they want to, but having access to that additional kind of means of communication. It’s quite funny, because I mean, I do I have gone through periods of sort of struggling with words, although I don’t think, haven’t tried actually, I don’t think language plays much of a part in that. But I have to think about Maths in Chinese, there is no other way that I can think about Maths.

[Brittany] Interesting!

[Sonny] Yeah, it’s, I think I learnt it, you know, most of my interest in Maths was when I when I was in China. So all of my mathematical ability is in Chinese.

[Bérengère] Yeah, no, as you said, like not forcing it upon anybody. I think that’s the most important thing I like. I mean, that one study done here, and also had the case of I think it was a study done here. I don’t know, they are several studies. for once, they had a child who would just scream when the hearing the minority language, they really just didn’t, didn’t like it at all. In that case, yes, indeed, there’s no point in forcing it. It’s, wait, like, we don’t want it to be like more of a painful experience, than the alternative, really, but if the child doesn’t mind, well continue. And then also being nonverbal, non- speaking at like, in the few first years of development, also doesn’t mean that they would develop language later on. And in that case, if they were already in a bilingual environment, cool. So that’s, that’s also that it’s not, there’s not necessarily, no need to restrict anything. And as you said, and it’s just giving opportunities for different options, really, with one of them maybe that they would prefer to the other end. Yes. Like, there’s also, for example, the question of sequential learning of a language, which was, which was recommended for even neurotypical children 20 years ago, where it was, first they were like, okay, but first do one language. And then when the child is like, around five, you can introduce the other language. And that’s, that’s it, then it will be good, we will make sure that way that the first language is really well established, and that there won’t be any mixing, as if mixing languages was bad. And that approach when your typical children, why not, there’s no benefit, it’s not beneficial in any sort of way. Actually, it’s, it’s, it’s, we know, it’s better to do it the other way around. But it’s not dramatic to do it that way. Sure. And contrary, in the context of autism, where if possibly, if you have an autistic child who is very much into sameness, and that’s, it’s very important for the child to have good consistency and what is going on around them. If you suddenly after five years, start speaking a different language for no reason at all in exactly the same environment like the same home, if you don’t move countries. I mean, obviously, if you move country, you don’t really have a choice, but suddenly the same person that’s doing exactly the same activity, suddenly in a entirely different language. Possibly that won’t go down well, and I can understand I mean, from my personal experience, my mum did first raise us in French, my brother and I, because 20 years ago, 28 years ago, that was the recommended approach, regardless of anything, but also in France. Autism is not really recognized even today. So 28 years ago, let’s not even speak about that. So yes, the approach was just first one language. And she decided to introduce Spanish later on when I was around, maybe three, and my brother must have been like, four years older than me. Seven, and my brother had no problem with that, like, sure, but my brother is very mellow. Like, sure, Okay, no problem. There’s just that language that we use to only have with our grandparents. No, we have it at home. No problem. I refused.

[Brittany] Did you?

[Bérengère] And it was just, I refused. And it was just, I would just shut down or not, not replied to her, what I could understand what she was saying, because I could understand Spanish, but mom speaks in French. And that is it. And so yeah, I would just ignore her entirely, just not at all respond to her speaking, and it’s suddenly out of absolutely nowhere, for no reason at all that a three year old can understand speaking a different language. So knowing that I cannot judge autistic children who would just shut down their parents entirely if they’ve randomly decided to speak a different language. Yeah, that strategy that is not useful for neurotypical children might actually very much not work at all for autistic children. I mean, maybe it would work for some of them, but probably not for many. I don’t know what you would think Sonny.

[Sonny] No, I feel a bit clammy, just you describing it. Like, I think, you know, we notice when things are weird, you know, we notice when things are unnatural. And we have a sensitivity to it. I think a lot of autistic people, you know, we’ve been, we grow up very finely attuned to threat and to danger and to like, people potentially being angry at us. And to have, you know, a parent figure or somebody who, you know, care about suddenly changing their behavior like that, or what feels like their behavior would be, oh, what’s happened? Have I done something wrong? Like, and you think about, like, how much autistic people can like really react to just somebody shaving their beard off? (laughs) You know, I mean, when my partner grows a beard, and then shaves it off, I’m like, Is it still you? I’m not sure. (laughs)

[Brittany] Take the beard and make it a language. And then obviously, it’s

[Sonny] Yeah, something like that. Yes, yeah.

[Bérengère] Yeah. So especially when we know that really it especially for autistic children, I think that the role of the communication with the parents is so important. I mean, for all children, of course, it’s very important to be able to have that strong bond through which like, so much of the learning happens, if like adding this language later on without any, like contextual explanation that the child can understand that maybe the child would understand if that is done, like, where they’re much older, sure, but it could potentially, like really break down that link. Well, if it’s established from the start, then there’s there’s no, no questions. So yes, that’s that advice that is still given a lot that is not given any more at all to neurotypical children and that is still given a lot at best for autistic children is actually just, just probably not working at all.

[Brittany] Interesting. Yeah, no, I think it’s a really good point. I think one of the themes, that’s, for me, listening to our conversation and sort of the different perspectives that have been mentioned here, that’s coming across quite clearly is a lot of the advice, say, or recommendations that might be given for children, for neurotypical children, that is quite antiquated, 20, 50 years old, is still being actively suggested for autistic children. And why would we expect that to work? If it doesn’t, if it doesn’t work for one group, why would you expect it to work necessarily for another group?

[Bérengère] Yeah, absolutely. That is, I think, taking into consideration the wrong aspects of autism, like trying to make it simpler to facilitate one thing by very much going straight into the wall for another thing, which just does not make sense. And no, yeah, I mean, I wanted to add in terms of bilingualism for autistic people that not learning as well the language, in, because here we are talking about like growing up bilingually, etc, so of course, autistic people can learn a second language or even a third just through attending school, many, many people acquire language that way, or by moving abroad or just by interest later on, without necessarily being like just passionate about language they can just develop an interest for a particular language and, and just learn it. And that is actually something that I really love. One of my findings about my research was the sensory aspects of the languages. That is I mean, I’ve I’m to be fair having looked for studies on that topic in bilingualism in neurotypical people.

[Brittany] I don’t know any immediately myself…

[Bérengère] But the sensory aspect of the language is just something that I had never really thought about before meeting autistic bilingual people would tell me about it. And I really love that because I mean, as a bilingual person, I’m aware that, for example, when I haven’t been speaking French for a very long time, and I go home, the first day, like, my mouth just hurts a bit, like it feels weird to move your muscles in that way that you haven’t used for a very long time. And yeah, it does feel weird. But that’s sort of like where it stopped in my reasoning. And then I met an autistic bilingual person who said that they, for example, they taught themselves, I think it was German, I, because they liked the feeling of speaking German, because it’s true, the way you move your mouth in one language, or the next is entirely different. And the feeling of speaking, the language was something that they found really, really soothing and so enjoyable, and calming, and all of that. So they just became entirely fluent in German, but just not, not like 1000 languages, just, just that one, that they just really enjoyed it. And I had an I met another autistic bilingual person who was fluent in Japanese, because they just randomly came across like, hearing Japanese, they find it that it was just most beautiful sounds ever. It was so soothing, so the best option to constantly be able to hear Japanese was just to become fluent in Japanese yourself. And so they just taught themselves Japanese just to be able to then speak it, to hear it. And that’s something that I find so, so beautiful. And I had like opening a whole new way of looking at languages through the sensory aspect of it, not just the meaning. And yeah, I’m so grateful for all of these people who share their experiences and their views on their, their language journey on that point, because that opened something entirely new for me.

[Sonny] I love that. You sort of got an insight into that through talking to autistic people, I think, yeah, I mean, the sensory aspects of a lot of things, and definitely language is something that if you read writing by autistic people, you’ll see a lot of kind of thinking about words, not just the meanings, but the feeling, the sensation, you know, quite a lot is said in the autistic community about kind of stimming as instead of kind of use, calming sensations by making sounds or words. And, you know, of course, you’ll have like, parents and practitioners pathologizing that say, Oh, no, this person keeps repeating this word, but maybe it just feels good. It’s a sort of nice calming feeling. And there are certain words that for me, for example, I think, Oh, well, I want to say that word or I want to make that sound in a certain moment. And other languages, like you say, you know, they have other rhythms and they give us access to like, so many more sounds, which is just really cool.

[Bérengère] Yeah. After like these conversations, I started to think like my favorite words, and several of like, in my languages, why were they my favorite words? Because like many people have a favorite word. Yeah. Like, none of my favorite words were because of their meaning. And I could definitely tell clearly, it was not the meaning. And that it was I realized that it was because there were so nice to say. And there was so like, written there was so nice to write. So these conversations, just really, like made me rethink as well, my attitude towards languages and towards, yeah, all of that. That was just so great.

[Brittany] We’ve more or less gone through all the questions that people have asked. Thank you so much to our wonderful guests, Dr. Bérengère Digard and Sonny Hallett for joining us today, where we spoke about bilingualism and autism. We hope you enjoyed it and learned some cool things, or at least some thought provoking information. I know I certainly did. A special thanks to our guests for their time and for sharing their expertise and experiences with us. If you’re interested in learning more about them, you can find their links in the episode description and on our website. Also on our website, MLSTpodcast.com, you can now leave us a review and let us know what you think. Tune in next time to keep learning about how languages shaped us and the environment around us. As always, stay safe, stay healthy and…

[Sonny] 再见 (Zàijiàn – Bye in Mandarin)

[Bérengère] Mar sin leibh (Gaelic for Goodbye)

[Brittany] Hasta luego! (Spanish for See you later)


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