Teaching Foreign Languages to Autistic Students

Autism spectrum disorder, also referred to as ASD, is a lifelong developmental disorder that negatively affects behavioral and communication aptitudes in individuals. According to the data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018), the share of ASD patients among general populations in Europe, Asia, and North America is 1-2% or 16 affected individuals per 1,000 people. However, in developed countries, the autism rate has been on the slight rise, probably due to the implementation of better diagnostic methods. Given the specifics of the disorder and its growing prevalence, it is readily imaginable how school instructors may be struggling with students with ASD. This essay discusses the specifics of teaching foreign languages to children on the spectrum and explains how the humanistic approach and modern technology may help these students get by.

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The Challenges of Teaching Foreign Languages to Students with ASD

ASD patients typically struggle with human interaction, expressing themselves, and adhering to social norms. Apart from that, one of the most common symptoms of ASD is the presence of “special,” repetitive behaviors that due to their compulsive nature, may interfere with an individual’s daily activities. Autism can be diagnosed more or less precisely at any age. It is possible to spot some tell-tale signs as early as during the first two years of a child’s life: little kids on the spectrum do not react to external triggers and fail to recognize other people. Later in life, ASD patients may have a hard time “deciphering” non-verbal signals such as gestures, facial expressions, and voice intonations. Besides, many children on the spectrum suffer from hypersensitivity and overexcitability. The workload and the pace of instruction at school that is age-appropriate for neurotypical children can lead to frustration and even emotional meltdowns in children with ASD.

As seen from the description above, the specifics of the disorder make it quite challenging for ASD patients to feel at ease in a school setting, let alone comply with the rules. Some challenges of teaching children on the spectrum are universal for all subjects while others are unique to foreign language instruction. In any subject, a child with ASD may struggle with sensory perception issues and impaired motor skills that may impede him or her from taking notes correctly and interacting with learning materials. When it comes to foreign languages, neurodivergent students may experience cognitive processing delays even when their intellect is intact. Some foreign language learning activities such as listening and speaking require a quick reaction, and the described delays may lead to a failure to conduct them successfully. On top of that, autism spectrum disorder implies social skill deficits. Given that learning a second language entails learning to act in communicative situations, it is easy to see how this common trait may be a great barrier to proficiency.

Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages for Neurodivergent Students

Despite all the difficulties that both students and teachers may experience in the process, research has found learning a second language to be advantageous in handling and relieving ASD symptoms. It should be noted that autism is a lifelong disability that cannot be cured, and the following concerns the idea that foreign languages can and do prove to be a viable self-management strategy. Moghadam, Karami, and Dehbozorgi (2015) outline three ways in which making progress in this particular subject may be advantageous for students with ASD:

  1. Even early attempts to overcome the social barrier may be advantageous in the long run. While incorporating the first language is an unconscious process, dealing with the second can be analyzed deliberately. Knowing a second language can help a student be more aware of his or her social skills;
  2. Learning a foreign language may help a student on the spectrum to overcome social detachment. Language learning requires telling apart intonations and other non-verbal cues, and again, as opposed to the mother tongue, in this case, the process is conscious. A student with ASD gets to “rewire” him- or herself to understand other people better and make his or her communication patterns more nuanced;
  3. Refining second language knowledge may make a student’s life more structured. As has been mentioned before, many ASD patients feel stressed and frustrated when put into an unfamiliar situation. Learning grammar rules and revising vocabulary may become stress-relieving habits for neurodivergent students.

Strategies for Teachers Dealing with Students on the Spectrum

Handling children with ASD in the classroom almost always requires an extra effort. A teacher must have a good understanding of what the disorder entails to make for a better experience for every party involved. First, a good idea would be to always stick to a routine and maintain a structured learning environment (Schrum, 2015). To ensure this, an instructor might consider using a pictogram that depicts the actions that a student needs to undertake. Another approach toward giving more structure to lessons is to use a timer. Unexpected situations may still arise. In this case, it would be best if a student with ASD were warned. For instance, it is imperative to tell him or her that a stand-in teacher is coming so that there is no extreme reaction to this situation.

A student on the spectrum would feel more at ease when paired with a student how is more advanced and mature so that they can play the mentoring role and be accepting of the autistic learner’s quirks. Lastly, it should be noted that autistic students often struggle with understanding the subtext (Schrum, 2015). When it comes to learning a new language, it may mean that they may fail to grasp the meaning of idioms and metaphors. If that is the case a good strategy might be to encourage a student to rely more on his or her memorization skills. Overall, the humanistic approach in which a teacher appraises a child’s strengths and tries to find a unique approach might be the best solution.

Now that science is making rapid advancements, special education may find new hope in various technologies. As Alemi, Meghdari, Basiri, and Taheri (2015) report, children with ASD are often drawn to gadgets, toys, and computers. In their research, Alemi et al. (2015) discovered that smart robots have the potential to help autistic learners with impaired language development. As the researchers describe, a robot has more resources to be there for a child, make pauses to let him or her process information, and teach child words and prosody. Maybe the new technology will find an application in the field of foreign language teaching.

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Conclusion

Autism is a chronic disability that impacts a child’s chances to excel in school. The most common symptoms such as communication, speech, and behavior impairments impede neurodivergent students from getting used to school routines. Teaching foreign languages to autistic learners is a challenge on its own. Getting a good command of a second language requires quick reactions and well-developed social skills. As much as it is challenging, learning a foreign language is also beneficial as it helps ASD students to become more self-aware. Good organizational and interpersonal strategies would include ensuring a structured learning environment and capitalizing on a child’s strengths. Recent scientific findings may help school instructors to get by providing technology that would tackle language impairments in students with ASD.

References

Alemi, M., Meghdari, A., Basiri, N. M., & Taheri, A. (2015, October). The effect of applying humanoid robots as teaching assistants to help Iranian autistic pupils learn English as a foreign language. In International Conference on Social Robotics (pp. 1-10). Springer, Cham.

Moghadam, A. S., Karami, M., & Dehbozorgi, Z. (2015). Second language learning in autistic children compared with typically developing children: “Procedures and Difficulties”. Ανακτήθηκε στις, 30(1), 2015.

Shrum, J. L. (2015). Teacher’s handbook, contextualized language instruction. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

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