"The languages that you know draw the boundary of your world": A thematic analysis of the experiences of autistic bilingual adults living in the United Kingdom

Bérengère G. Digard*, Rachael Davis, Andrew Stanfield, Antonella Sorace, Sue Fletcher-Watson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: Although being bilingual (knowing two or more languages) is becoming a more common experience globally, little is known about the combined experience of bilingualism and autism. Research currently available focuses on quantifying language and cognitive development, and the only two qualitative accounts of first-hand experiences are from either bilingual children or highly multilingual adults (with four languages or more), which may not represent the wider autistic bilingual population. All other accounts focus on parents or practitioners. This qualitative study reports the experiences of autistic bi- and multilingual adults, focusing on barriers and enablers to language learning and the reported benefits of bilingualism.

Methods: Thirty-nine U.K.-based autistic bilingual adults (41% female, mean age = 33.2 years, range = 16–61) with knowledge of two to seven languages (mean = 3.6, standard deviation = 1.4) completed an online Demographic and Language Questionnaire, including three open-ended questions about the interplay between autism and bilingualism. A thematic analysis was conducted on the responses to these open-ended questions.

Results: Participants perceived many opportunities and benefits brought by bilingualism, in terms of relationships, hobbies, mobility, employment, education, and cultural insight. Respondents reported social communication as being a major benefit of being bilingual, and discussed how bilingualism had broadened their mindset, while identifying factors that had enabled or challenged their language learning journey.

Conclusions: This study builds upon the few reports available to highlight the experiences that are shared by autistic bilingual people regardless of the number of languages they know. It is the first study to report the perspectives of U.K.-based autistic bilingual adults who, in most cases, grew up in a bilingual environment. Accounts of the factors that can facilitate or hinder language learning will inform the development of strategies to better support autistic people. These findings have implications for bilingual families and practitioners supporting autistic bilingual people.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism in Adulthood
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Aug 2022

Keywords

  • bilingualism
  • bilingual
  • multilingualism
  • multilingual
  • language
  • languages
  • language learning
  • identity
  • lived experiences
  • perspectives

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