Autistic Polyglots: An Analysis of the Language Experiences, Motivations, and Atypical Learning Profiles of Autistic Multilinguals

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
K. M. Nolte1, B. G. Digard1, A. Sorace2, A. C. Stanfield3 and S. Fletcher-Watson1, (1)University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, (2)Department of Linguistics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, (3)University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Background: Autistic people can demonstrate skills that surpass neurotypical standards in various domains, including language. Some autistic people have difficulties with the acquisition of language, and display specific impaired linguistic processes such as mutism or pragmatic language impairments. However other autistic people successfully learn and use multiple languages. Specific enhanced linguistic skills such as hyperlexia, or learning skills such as memory and pattern recognition have been reported in autistic people. Still, the patterning of enhanced or impaired skills has not been consistently described, and a theoretical and empirical understanding of the ability of some autistic people to learn multiple languages is lacking. To date, case studies have only described savant autistic polyglots, but group studies of autistic multilinguals are scarce. Furthermore, no study has yet incorporated the accounts of autistic people describing their own experience as multilinguals.

Objectives: This study seeks to describe the factors contributing to the learning of multiple languages in multilingual autistic people. We complement quantitative data with a qualitative account of their internal motivations, and how they perceive the interplay between autism and multilingualism.

Methods: The Autism & Bilingualism Census (ABC) was an online survey designed for monolingual and multi-lingual autistic adults. The ABC included questions about demographics, language history, and open-ended questions to gather qualitative data on the way language learning and knowledge had influenced respondents’ lives. A total of 297 autistic adults took part in the ABC, including 54 respondents knowing 4 languages or more. These 54 participants’ answers to the demographic, language history, and open-ended questions were analyzed.

Results: Respondents (55.6% female) were aged between 18 and 64 (M=32.7 years, SD=9.8 years), 47 had a clinical diagnosis of autism and 7 were self-identified autistic. Twenty-six respondents listed 4 languages, 14 listed 5 languages, 14 listed 6 or more languages. For all their languages respondents reported a wide range of age of acquisition (AoA): for example, AoA of the 2ndlanguage (L2) ranged from 0 to 25 (M=5.9 years, SD=5.0). Respondents also reported a wide range of proficiency in all their languages: for example on the self-rating scale from 0=”Not at all” to 8=”Excellent”, L2 proficiency ranged from 0.5 to 8 (M=5.2, SD=2.4). Autistic multilinguals’ motivations include a predisposition for language acquisition and social factors, such as relationships and social skills. Respondents reported perceived benefits of multilingualism in several domains such as social skills, confidence, and opportunities. They also discussed the positive and negative effects of the atypical autistic learning processes (i.e. memory, pattern identification, increased focus) in relation to their language learning skills.

Conclusions: This is the first study reporting insights from autistic multilinguals regarding the relationship between autism and their language experiences, their motivations to learn languages, and their perceived benefits of being multilingual. This study highlights diversity in the language profiles of autistic multilinguals, and offers multiple leads to better support language learning opportunities for autistic people.