THE INCLUSION OF STUDENTS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS IN THE CANADIAN SCHOOL SYSTEM: THE CASE OF THE HIGH FUNCTIONING AUTISTIC/ASPERGER SYNDROME SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNER
York University, Glendon College (CANADA)
Today, more and more children are being diagnosed as being autistic (ASD), and because communication impairments are at the core of their disorder, speech-pathologists as well as educators tend to recommend that their language learning be limited to one language, namely the language of the community they live in.
But because we know what a societal asset it is to know more than one language in our multilingual countries, and to give the high functioning ASD individuals a good chance to become full and productive members of their multilingual and multicultural communities, we have to offer them the chance, if they want, to learn more than one language.
Moreover, today, it is widely accepted that knowing several languages keeps your brain active and more flexible, which is what is particularly needed by the ASD children who keep developing linguistically, cognitively and socially well beyond the typical “critical period”.
Given this situation, we would like to argue that high functioning autistic /Asperger Syndrome children can learn foreign languages (L2), and become bilingual.
We will therefore show that like the population with learning disabilities who appears to benefit from L2 learning, the high functioning autistic language learners can benefit from L2 learning as it seems to have a positive impact on their linguistic, cognitive, social, psychological and cultural development.
Indeed, the advantages are not only linguistic (learning of L2, acquisition of transferable translinguistic knowledge used in reading, writing and speaking, strengthening of the command of L1), but also cognitive (mental and cognitive flexibility, “brain gym” from birth to old age, development of problem solving skills, reasoning skills, deductive and inductive reasoning, organizing of ideas), social (Vygotsky’s theory, development of social skills in the language classroom through role playing and group projects monitored by the language teacher), cultural (L2 learning makes the high functioning ASD children more mentally flexible as through L2 learning they open up to other cultures, other people, other ways of life and other daily customs.), and psychological (higher self-satisfaction and self-esteem).
We will also argue that like with the regular population, L2 learning by high functioning autistic learners can lead to a transfer of knowledge from L2 to L1 (their first language), and consequently can improve and strengthen their command of L1.
To conclude, after reviewing what we have learned in the last 30 years about the benefits of bilingualism and L2 learning, and given the capacity of the high functioning ASD population to learn a L2, we will explore what are the advantages of L2 learning in the language classroom by this population, what kind of methodology and teaching strategies seem to facilitate and maximize their L2 learning, and what natural strengths and assets they are bringing to the L2 classroom?