Jewish autistic children thrive as bilingual learners despite ‘outdated’ advice not to teach Hebrew, a new study has found.
The University of Cambridge study found that non-Jewish specialists often advised against teaching Hebrew as a second language, despite evidence suggesting they would benefit from doing so.
Researchers found that while professionals tended to back parents in advocating learning Hebrew, medical practitioners often lacked cultural knowledge of the importance of the language and the latest scientific evidence.
Researchers, led by Rabbi David Sher, pointed out that this view risked marginalising autistic Jewish children from key communal events and festivals.
“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there is no evidence that teaching autistic children a second language is harmful, there seems to be a prevailing, outdated view that it will confuse them and impede their acquisition of English,” he said.
“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.
Teachers and parents told researchers 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, say researchers.
The study recommends 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.
Researcher Dr Jenny 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.”
The study is published in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
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