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English as a Second Language

by Sally Willbanks
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English as a Second Language

I posted this quote by Dani Bowman on Instagram:


“English is my 2nd language.  Autism is my first”.


I found this quote so interesting because I had just been having a conversation with my husband about how I think we don’t really understand our seven-year-old son Bear.  My husband disagreed with me, but I know it to be true.  How could we possibly understand him?  How could we know what it’s like to walk in his shoes?  Our neurotypical brains can’t comprehend what it must be like to have sensory overload, anxiety, overwhelm, confusion and emotional dysregulation on a daily basis.  So, I posted this quote and asked the autistics of Instagram if they agreed.


It sparked a very interesting conversation. Along with a whole lot of clapping and high-ten emojis, I received the following comments:


“I would rather say autism’s a different dialect.  In any language.”


“It does feel like a different language and also a different culture.  Like you are dropped off in Japan and are required to participate in society: you learn the language a bit, but you never really understand social and cultural rules.”


“It’s a completely different way of ’being’ in every language or culture.  It’s why we often feel like aliens on our own planet.”


“It’s perfect!  The fact that you’re thinking and posting about it shows how much you love him. You actually wanting to understand brings tears to my eyes.  I’ve never had anyone express that much interest in attempting to understand.”


“YES.  Holy poop yes lol.  It resonates with me a lot.”


“It feels to me like we know the language of the old world – based more on natural rhythms and patterns and flows that have always existed – and NT people know the language of the new world – less about instinctive patterns and more about agreed rules of engagement that mankind adopted as they moved away from nature.  We’re grounded in different things, our safety lies in different things, and so we may be able to learn or speak this other language to get by, but it will never sit as comfortably on us as our original.  They’ve shown with studies that autistic people can often understand each other similarly to how NTs understand each other and learn to understand NTs to some degree, but NTs have a harder time understanding autistics (which is possibly because they’re encouraged to employ a common approach instead of learning about autistic people more directly and individually).”


“Most times I don’t feel like my family understands me.  They understand me too much from a neurotypical point of view than an autistic point of view.”


“We even do with strangers.  Sometimes, we can just sense someone is autistic and we instantly start nonverbal communication.  We definitely have our own language.  But it most certainly can be learned.” 


It is remarkable to me that so many people are feeling this same experience, alienated from society and misunderstood, like English really is their second language.  Research has shown that autistic people have difficulty with eye contact, reading facial expressions, making facial expressions, and prosody (which is the rhythm, intonation, rise and fall of speech).  All of these differences make it difficult for autistics to communicate with neurotypicals.  I can’t imagine the stress that puts them under, and it is no wonder so many autistic people suffer social anxiety.


After I read all of the comments, I actually had a good cry for my son and for the difficult life stretched out before him.  These comments cemented in me the fact that I was right; I do not really understand my son.  It is imperative that I try though.  It is imperative that we always try to show understanding to people who are different from us.  Those differences are what make the world interesting.  Instead of forcing autistic people to adapt to neurotypical ways, we need to at least meet them halfway.  We need to make ourselves more knowledgeable about the differences in communication, more understanding, and stand up for these amazing individuals who have so much to offer our world.  Imagine if neurotypicals tried as hard to understand autistics as autistics are forced to try to understand NTs.  There would be far fewer communication breakdowns, and the autistic community would feel validated, respected and heard.  I am on a mission to do this to the best of my ability, for the sake of my son, who is genuinely the most amazing little boy I have ever met.  It’s the least I can do.  It’s the least we can all do.

by Sally Willbanks


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