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28 Oct 2021, 8:26 am

Jewish autistic pupils thrive as bilingual learners, after communities reject advice “not to teach Hebrew” - University of Cambridge

Parents and teachers of Jewish autistic children say they frequently have to disregard outdated professional advice not to teach them Hebrew – a recommendation they describe as “stealing” their cultural identity.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.”

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”.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

It is Autism Acceptance Month.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman