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Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism

When Jasiel’s psychologist gave me his autism and speech delay diagnosis, I felt a range of emotions. Two that I vividly remember to this day were defeat and guilt. I felt that my strong desire to raise a bilingual child had caused his inability to communicate. I thought I was confusing him. Maybe I wasn’t speaking a wide range of words to him in either language. It had caused his speech delay.

Do you know what made it worse? His psychologist was actually in agreement with me. In a demeaning and dismissive manner, he ended his session with us by stating, “He’s in America. You need to be speaking to him in English anyway. You are just going to continue confusing him. One language and that needs to be English because that’s what he’ll hear everywhere.”

The mere fact that he ignored Jasiel’s racial and cultural identity coupled with his father’s native language, I had to address him. I told him how condescending he was and insensitive to family dynamics and language preferences. Moreso, how uneducated and closed minded he was to explore the benefits of bilingualism and autism.

Thankfully, I didn’t listen to him, switched providers, and vowed to prove anyone wrong who thought that my son didn’t have the mental ability to learn two languages.

Andrea Fenise Memphis Blogger shares how to raise a bilingual and autistic child

As a mom, I will go to the end of the earth to help guide my children. The first thing I did to help Jasiel’s speech progression was not accept a nonverbal diagnosis nor was I going to give up on bilingualism- we started speech therapy. We began weekly sessions at Memphis Speech and Hearing Center. After several tests and playtime assessments, we discovered that Jasiel was a gestalt language learner. In short, he learns big chunks of words or phrases. For example, he was repeating entire cartoon episodes and singing songs in totality but couldn’t say individual words.

Knowing this, I built the foundation of our bilingual journey. I initiated a language strategy that would not only help my son begin talking but in two languages. Soon, I noticed that Jasiel did have the ability and actually a yearning to talk. He just needed to build his confidence in expressive communication.

Andrea Fenise Memphis Blogger shares how to raise a bilingual and autistic child

The reasons for raising my son as bilingual and autistic were bountiful. I’ve always wanted my children to be citizens of the world and respect other's cultures. Language is one of the bridges that connect people from all over the world. But more importantly, I wanted to honor and respect his father’s heritage and culture by teaching him to speak both languages. Daniel is very passionate about his children speaking his native language. He doesn’t speak English to any children. And, I didn’t want Jasiel to be an exception because he is autistic. He deserved to embrace both of his identities. I vowed to give him that opportunity.

Andrea Fenise Memphis Blogger shares how to raise a bilingual and autistic child

After doing research and developing a casual and informal curriculum, I created a plan on how I would raise a bilingual and autistic little boy.

First, I developed a plan for Daniel and me. In order to remove the unsettling guilt, we applied the OPOL strategy- One Parent One Language strategy with a few modifications. We agreed that I would primarily speak in English and Daniel would speak only in Spanish. We made a profound adjustment that really catapulted Jasiel’s speech progression and bilingualism. Once he adapted the words or phrases in English, Daniel taught them in Spanish, then I reinforced them in both. This method was singlehandedly how we mastered colors, numbers, the alphabet, and body parts in both English and Spanish.

Andrea Fenise Memphis Blogger shares how to raise a bilingual and autistic child

Andrea Fenise Memphis Blogger shares how to raise a bilingual and autistic child

Our next strategy after we knew he was mastering the first 100 words or so bilingually, we started using the context and time and place method just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. The context method is where you use languages within certain contexts or places. For example, my family is an English speaking only family who Jasiel spends the most time with. We would have my daughter or aunt and uncle ask him something in English and he would respond back in English. Then, we would switch the languages immediately to Spanish and miraculously he would respond in Spanish.

It was in these moments, we knew we were raising a bilingual child that happens to be autistic.

Andrea Fenise Memphis Blogger shares how to raise a bilingual and autistic child

It hasn’t been difficult as so many people have tried to persuade us that it would be. His speech delay had nothing to do with him being confused with two languages. He had a speech delay that was directly related to autism. Once, I recognized this, removed the guilt, and embraced guiding him and challenging him on the path that I dreamed for him, we saw amazing progress.

It has been the most rewarding journey. We see that Jasiel can not only speak but he has the potential to do so many amazing things. It amazes me to see how confident he is with both languages and how he knows when to use which language depending on who he is speaking with. There are so many times I look at him in awe and wonder if bilingualism is the gift God blessed him with. Maybe especially with him being a Gemini and communication being their superpower, he will have a gift and a platform that brings people together through language. I’ve had someone prophesize that to me when he was just 4 months old-way before his autism diagnosis.

So, yes I am raising a bilingual child with autism spectrum disorder, and he is doing great Dr. Little!

Andrea Fenise Memphis Blogger shares how to raise a bilingual and autistic child

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