Parents and teachers of Jewish autistic children say they frequently have to disregard outdated professional advice not to teach them Hebrew – a recommendation they describe as “stealing” their cultural identity.
In a University of Cambridge study with families and schools around the UK, Jewish parents of autistic children told researchers that non-Jewish specialists, such as speech therapists and paediatricians, often counsel them against teaching their children Hebrew as a second language. Many found this guidance distressing, given Hebrew’s centrality to their spiritual and family life.
The study was the first to investigate Hebrew-English bilingualism and autism in schools. Broadly, a growing body of research suggests that autistic children from bilingual settings will benefit if they learn a second language, but that practitioners often contradict the scientific evidence and tell families this is inappropriate.
Unexpectedly, the new study found that education professionals in Jewish schools tended to back parents in rejecting such guidance as old-fashioned and “unjust”. Jewish teachers’ default position was that autistic children should learn Hebrew wherever possible. In some cases, the pupils then mastered it more proficiently than their neurotypical peers.
The researchers suggest that practitioners, when advising bilingual families with an autistic child, may lack both an awareness of the latest scientific evidence, and appropriate knowledge of cultural contexts which can make second languages critically important to the wider development of autistic people.
They point out that autistic Jewish children who miss out on learning Hebrew are likely to become marginalised from key communal and lifecycle events. For example, they will be less able to join in with annual festivals, or to fulfil the bar mitzvah ceremony at age 13, which involves reading from the Torah.
The study was led by Rabbi David Sher, a doctoral researcher who undertook it while studying for an MPhil in Psychology and Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.
“Autistic children often face inequalities throughout school,” he said. “Depressingly, being discouraged from learning a second language, even if their own culture is bilingual, seems to be one example.”
“Although there is no evidence that teaching autistic children a second language is harmful, there seems to be a prevailing, outdated view that it will confuse them and impede their acquisition of English. This overlooks the fact that Jewish children use Hebrew extensively to participate in community and family life. For autistic children, those opportunities are hugely important.”
The researchers conducted detailed interviews and written surveys with 53 parents and educational practitioners, collectively representing 168 autistic children and 20 of the 90 Jewish primary schools in the UK – including four of the five Jewish special schools.
Parents described themselves as being “shocked” after being told not to teach their child Hebrew. One recalled of a meeting with her doctor: “He said straight away: ‘Two languages with children like this complicates things.’ He didn’t even know [my son]; it was part of the rhetoric.” Another parent told the researchers: “It’s their heritage at the end of the day. It’s like stealing what should be theirs.”
Other studies on bilingualism and autism have typically found that schools tend to follow professional guidance about language-learning, even if this contradicts parents’ preferences. In this case, however, the researchers found that staff at Jewish schools – perhaps because of their familiarity with the cultural context – typically overlook the guidance and do teach pupils Hebrew, unless they are already struggling with English.
Teachers often echoed parents’ concerns that forcing autistic children not to learn Hebrew might impoverish their engagement with their faith and the wider community. One, who teaches seven autistic pupils, dismissed the guidance as outdated: “People who hear that a person has autism switch to the old-fashioned model: they think they’re retarded.”
Some teachers said that they had devised bespoke techniques, such as a flashcard-based memorisation system, to help their autistic pupils learn Hebrew words and scripture. “We are ambitious for them to achieve like the other children,” one head told the researchers. “Our autistic children usually learn Hebrew like the rest of the class”. Participants frequently described the effect, in helping children to participate in prayers, festivals, and other activities, as “empowering”.
Teachers and parents also reported that autistic pupils who did acquire proficiency in English showed no difficulty grasping Hebrew as well – sometimes doing so with greater ease than their peers. The finding corresponds to other studies which indicate that despite the advice of some practitioners, bilingual autistic children do not generally experience language development delays.
The research is likely to be relevant to other bilingual communities where parents of autistic children often face similar challenges. For example, Wales has no Welsh-medium specialist autism schools, forcing parents to make a sometimes painful choice between supporting their child’s autism and their cultural heritage.
The researchers, Sher, Dr Jenny Gibson and Dr Wendy Browne, recommend that more should be done to ensure that practitioners working with autistic children from diverse communities understand the cultural and linguistic values of their families. Addressing this may involve awareness training, or simply matching autistic children to psychologists and therapists from similar backgrounds where possible.
Gibson, associate professor of psychology and education at the University of Cambridge, said: “It is essential that practitioners recognise the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity when considering how to support children from minority backgrounds. The idea that autistic children can only learn one language is a myth. Research shows that speaking home languages with family and friends can be incredibly important for building social connections, participating in cultural life, and fostering a sense of wellbeing.”
The study is reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
“It’s Like Stealing What Should be Theirs.” An Exploration of the Experiences and Perspectives of Parents and Educational Practitioners on Hebrew–English Bilingualism for Jewish Autistic Children