Family & Education

Hebrew is the heritage of autistic pupils too

While some have argued that autistic children should not be taught a second language, that's not the practice in Jewish schools according to a new piece of research


Close-up offamily reading Hebrew bible during traditional Hanukkah meal at dining table.

A popular account of the Chafetz Chaim of Radin relays that when an autistic child entered the revered sage’s room, the rabbi would stand up in honour of the child. He indicated that he did so as these children were holy and had pious souls.

It is perhaps no wonder that positive portrayals in Judaism (and indeed Jewish scripture) may have permeated at least some of our school and synagogue system.

Recent research I led at Cambridge University on autistic children learning Hebrew and English, which has just been published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, reflected this.

In the very first peer-reviewed study focusing on autism in the UK-Jewish community, 24 Jewish schools across the UK and of all Jewish denominations participated. The study considered the issue of forced monolingualism among parents and educational practitioners caring for some 168 Jewish autistic children.

Forced monolingualism refers to being prevented from gaining competence in a second language, despite one’s family or culture being bilingual. There are many reports of practitioners worldwide advising bilingual parents to avoid exposing their autistic child to a second language. Such advice raises severe concerns about hampering autistic children’s communal, social, and familial integration.

Therefore, forced monolingualism constitutes an additional, understudied inequality that autistic children face. Reasons proffered to explain some practitioners’ monolingual preferences include the belief that a second language causes language confusion and that it impedes acquisition of the majority language.

However, these views are not empirically supported. Overall, the study I conducted with input from Drs Wendy Brown and Jenny Gibson revealed that within the Jewish community, the prevalent attitude did not support or advocate monolingual approaches.

Wherever possible (and indeed there were cases where this was not possible), children were empowered to learn both Hebrew and English, and practitioners across schools reported the sense of pride and accomplishment that this engendered in children.

Participants felt that preventing a child from learning Hebrew was an egregious injustice. This quote was indicative: “All that learning…it’s their heritage at the end of the day. It’s like stealing what should be theirs.”

Parents believed that precluding autistic children from learning a second language was discriminatory. “Don’t limit your child’s future by saying ‘Oh, he has ASD, I may as well teach him English...but it’s too hard to read Hebrew’ one parent explained. “Otherwise, you’re just leaving them with an even bigger disability... you’re extending the disability, not minimising it.”

A special educational needs co-ordinator summed up the feelings of many practitioners; “I think they need to be very cautious...we cannot clip the wings of people.”

Innovative, bespoke flashcard memorisation methods designed for autistic children were created by educators to aid Hebrew learning. In both parents’ and practitioners’ experience, autistic children who were able to acquire proficiency in English did not have difficulty in also learning Hebrew.

In fact, in Jewish schools, the default approach was to offer autistic children the chance to learn two languages wherever possible. One headmaster explained: “We are ambitious...for them to achieve like the other children. Our autistic children usually learn Hebrew... like the rest of the class.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, has said of the Jewish special needs school Gesher, in Pinner: “If I had a child with special educational needs, I would want them to go to Gesher. Their pioneering approach is transforming education”.

It is most fitting that the Jewish community should continue to make strides in autism education and research. The very genesis of research on autism is inextricably linked to Jewish practitioners. A Russian-Jewish psychiatrist, G.E. Sukhareva, was the first to provide a clinical picture of five autistic children in 1925, some two decades before Leo Kanner published his seminal paper in 1943.

For a long time, Professor Baron-Cohen has championed autistic children’s rights. At a keynote speech before the United Nations, he declared; “People with autism account for a significant minority of the population worldwide, yet we are failing them in so many respects.” This is certainly true, and in this context, the finding that we as a community are respecting autistic children’s inviolable linguistic rights is encouraging.

Nevertheless, this does not allow for a complacent attitude. There is still much work to be done. In particular, we need to remove any residual stigma towards autistic people that may remain within the community, as it does within the general population.

In this respect, the sagacity of Ben Azzai’s dictum should be our guiding light: “Do not despise any man, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is not a man that has not his hour, and there is no thing that has not its place.”


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