4 mins read

Autism and Learning a Foreign Language

Big time advice coming…

A few times, when my son with autism was younger, I said to myself, “I should really get him into some kind of foreign language instruction soon.” But, I never followed through.

Now, my son has just started high school and is finally taking a foreign language, Spanish.

I wish he had started when he was younger.


Even with a typical kid, the earlier you start a foreign language instruction, the better.

Now, add autism into the mix.

What happened?

Well, my son began his freshman year with all of the typical classes. For his electives, he was advised to have a “Resource Lab,” which is a kind of study hall for special needs’ students.

My son likes his Resource Lab because it gives him a break in the middle of the day. He can organize his day and get some homework and studying done.

His other elective is Spanish, his last class of the day.

My husband and I both took Spanish in school ourselves, and we knew this class was going to be a challenge for our son.

After one week, we heard from his teacher.

What did the teacher say?

We think the problem is two-fold.

Before I explain the problems, I want to mention that we thanked the teacher for her email. It was only one week into the school year, and we explained to her that we consider it a good thing that she contacted us earlier rather than later.

The first problem is the one mentioned above, that learning a language is a challenge for even typicals. You have to learn how to read, write, and speak a foreign language.

The second problem is the teacher seems unfamiliar with a child with autism.

The basics of her email stated that (to her) our son seems “fidgety” and “distracted.” She also stated that he doesn’t seem to want to do the necessary in-class oral (speaking) partner work.

When a teacher says things like “fidgety” and “distracted” to us, we believe it may signal that the teacher might not be familiar with a child with autism. Our son often doesn’t “look” like he’s listening, but he is.

That’s the first problem.

The second problem is that my son needs to practice something that is very different from anything that he’s ever done.

What are we doing to help him?

My husband and I have decided to help our son by beginning on the ground level, so we now occasionally speak to him in Spanish. We’re by no means “Spanish speaking” people, but we know enough to be able to help him lay the groundwork.

We are also meeting with his teacher so that we can discuss strategies for helping our son.

I sat down with my son and had a talk about doing extra work. First, I want to see all of his homework (since the teacher stated that he’s doing it very fast, I want to make sure it’s not being done too fast).

Second, we contacted a friend of ours who is a high school Spanish teacher (about an hour away from us). She suggested a website and an app that would help.

So, for now, my son has to do ten minutes a day from both the website and the app.

The extra work during the beginning of the class, hopefully, will bear fruit at the end of the class.

Once my son “gets the hang of it,” hopefully it’ll get easier as he moves forward with a new language. He’ll get more and more comfortable speaking, reading, and writing it.

And, hopefully, he learns enough that it’ll stay with him, and he’ll use it and enjoy it someday.

Which is what it’s all about.


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