Multilingual Autistic Adults

Nolte et al, 2021

Full article:


Nothing about us without us
Who: Nolte and colleagues
Where: Autism in Adulthood
Published: 2021
Title: Perspectives and Experiences of Autistic Multilingual Adults: A Qualitative Analysis

Multilingual Autistic Adults

This research wanted to explore the experiences of multilingual autistic adults.

Nolte et al, 2021

While autism is associated with social communication differences, it is independent of co-occurring language difficulties.

Autistic people have can have a full range of language skills, as non-autistic people do. However, misconceptions about autistic peoples language abilities means that some people believe multilingualism is impossible for autistic people. Therefore, some parents & practitioners favour monolingualism for autistic people, even when the rest of the family maintains multilingualism.

Nolte et al, 2021

There is little to no research on the experiences of multilingual autistic adults, so this research wanted to explore their experiences.

The participants were 54 multilingual autistic adults (four or more languages). Seven of these individuals self-identified as autistic.

Nolte et al, 2021

They found the following themes & subthemes.

Theme 1: Direct influence of autism on language learning

  • Autism as an advantage
  • Autism as a disadvantage
    Theme 2: Opportunities brought by language
  • Entertainment and leisure
  • Travels
  • Higher education
  • Employment
    Theme 3: Relationships
  • Family
  • Friendship
    Theme 4: Self-efficacy
  • Social interaction
  • Self-confidence
  • Autism awareness

Nolte et al, 2021

“I find it fascinating and very fun. I do not learn languages for their usefulness, but for the joy I get from learning them.”

“Knowing several languages is absurdly useful. Languages can help you with work, traveling, learning (I have learned three languages in languages that were not L1 or L2 and I got one of my degrees in English), making friends and soon. I’m not sure if knowing several languages is more useful while autistic. I think it might be equally useful for everyone.”

Nolte et al, 2021

“It is also useful to me personally for helping me communicate with my family especially with my gran who didn’t speak English.”

“Learning languages makes it easier to make online friends from far away.”

“I found myself speaking a lot more Italian with my friends at university after having joined a society for all Italians and we meet up outside of those meet-ups as well.”

Nolte et al, 2021

“It makes it possible for me to interact with a wider set of people. Without my knowledge of the English language I would not have met several people who are important to me, and who have enriched my life as an autistic person, and helped me in gaining an identity. There is not much of a neurodiversity movement in [language]*, so without knowledge of additional languages I would have been very isolated indeed.”

*Specific language anonymised

Nolte et al, 2021

“You learn that there are more than one way of living, thinking. You have more perspectives.”

“I think bilingualism and multilingualism have helped reduce my social anxiety and have given me more self confidence in social situations.”

“I think socially people are very forgiving of faux pas if they know you’re a foreigner so it’s not uncommon for autistic people to feel more comfortable in another country. I am much more comfortable in a multi-lingual setting.”

Nolte et al, 2021

“I have a certain pride in my bilingualism because it highlights that there are certain things I’m very good at and do well despite being autistic. It highlights that we all have strong and weak points.”

“I think bilingualism and multilingualism have helped reduce my social anxiety and have given me more self confidence in social situations.”

Nolte et al, 2021

Theme 1: Direct Influence of Autism on Language Learning

The participants found their autism to be both an advantage and a disadvantage for language learning.

They found that having languages as a special interest made them very easy to focus on and learn, although this was also a disadvantage when it came to learning languages that they did not find interesting.

Nolte et al, 2021

They also found that their skills in pattern recognition made it easier to grasp grammatical structures. They found accents easy to imitate, and some citied being hyperlexic, having hyperfocus, and having an eidetic memory as useful in language learning.

They suggested that having difficulties switching focus, having periods of being non-speaking, and having dysgraphia made language learning harder.

Nolte et al, 2021

Theme 2: Opportunities Brought by Languages

The participants found that being multilingual was very useful for leisure, travel, work, and education. They believes that languages expanded their horizons, made travel more comfortable, and that languages help them to access a range of interests.

Nolte et al, 2021

Theme 3: Relationships

Many participants cited their family as a reason for language learning, especially to communicate with relatives who spoke limited or no English. This helped them to strengthen family bonds with both those who did and did not speak English.

Their language abilities also helped them to form & develop friendships with a wide range of people from different backgrounds, especially online.

Nolte et al, 2021

Theme 4: Self-Efficacy

The participants felt that they had increased understanding of themselves as autistic people, increased their self-confidence, and provided increased assurance in their social-interactive abilities.

They saw their multilingualism as a tool which increased their ability to connect with autistic people from around the world, and also widened their knowledge by being able to learn about autism from online resources which were not in their native language.

Nolte et al, 2021

They also felt more self-assured, confidence, and had reduced anxiety due to their multilingualism. They felt it facilitated their ability to interact socially, finding that using a non-native language to communicate could feel more comfortable than their native language. Some people felt this was due to the attitudes of others towards them when interacting in their non-native languages.

They felt that learning & knowing other languages increased their social understanding, making them more comfortable in interacting with others, especially in terms of perspective-taking abilities and in becoming more aware of social patterns in communication. Many felt that autistic people may have more to benefit from multilingualism than neurotypical people.

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