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Speaking Autism is My Second Language

The post below is by Lisa Smith, the mother of seven children, two with special needs. Her son Tate has autism. Lisa blogs about her experiences and can be found on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos or at

I know a lady who moved from the States to a country where they spoke primarily Spanish. While she was still learning Spanish, she had to translate the words in her mind from English to Spanish or from Spanish to English because she “thought” in English. After being submerged in Spanish for a while she told me she thought and even dreamed in Spanish, rarely using English anymore. Her primary language had changed from English to Spanish.

English is my first language but I speak one other language. I have become very fluent in autism. Autism will never be my first language but it is my son’s primary language. I have to think fast and translate back and forth in my mind as I listen to my son speak. Autism is similar to English but the dialect of autism we speak is difficult for many people to understand. When a person who does not speak autism comes into my home they can become confused because of the language barrier that will exist for them. They will be able to pick up on many of the words and ideas but not everything, much like the lady who was just learning Spanish when she moved to the country where everyone else spoke it fluently.

My son walks into the room and says, “When there is no cereal, I eat toast.” I think quickly and realize he means that we have run out of his favorite cereal and he is hungry. He would like for me to make him some toast. Why didn’t he just say, “Hey mom, can you make me some toast and would you put cereal on the grocery list?” My children who use English predominantly would do that. But my son Tate speaks autism as his first language. English is his second language and he just cannot quite master it. He leaves out a lot of details, expecting me to fill in all the blanks. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I cannot interpret his meanings though. It is very frustrating to him when I cannot speak his language and he has to try and use mine. We often go round and round in circles.

The language my son speaks does not allow him to put feelings into words. He cannot really let me know he is sad, angry, confused, frustrated, uncomfortable, or disappointed, directly with words. Recently Tate learned to ride a bike and that has been incorporated into his Physical Education class at school. Having his bike at school makes him very uncomfortable. He likes everything in its proper place. I do not know this because he verbalized his feelings. I know that because he says things like, “It’s illegal to keep a bike at school!” and, “We ride bikes on Wednesdays for six weeks. How long ‘til we bring the bike home?”

So, the cereal/toast and the bike at school examples were easy ones. Let me give you another example of just how hard it can be to translate if you do not speak my son’s language. I mentioned to Tate that he was going to need to start shaving soon. That must have made him nervous because he began telling me he wanted to grow a beard. What I did not think about was the only thing Tate knew about shaving was that his dad smears shaving cream all over his face to shave. Tate has sensory issues and I never intended to have him shave with cream and a razor. He hates textures like shaving cream. Had I thought about the language barrier I would have explained to Tate about using an electric razor when I first mentioned shaving. I bought an electric razor and he was happy to be shaved. He has stopped talking to me about his desire to grow a beard now. That’s a relief!

Just as it is difficult to translate some words into another language, my son cannot seem to translate a few of our English words into his language. In English the word “homework” would be defined as something like: assignments a teacher gives their student to complete outside of class. That word is taboo at our house but not for the reason you might think. It is not necessarily about avoiding the math worksheet or memorizing the spelling words. Schoolwork is work you do at school. But you NEVER do schoolwork at home. THAT is the difference between speaking English and speaking autism. Some of the words or phrases just do not translate well or have the same meaning.  

Then there are all the misunderstandings that come with our language barrier. This evening Tate’s dad was praising him for doing something correctly. His dad said, “Tate! You were ‘right on the money.’” Tate looked around quickly and said, “What money?” All those kinds of quotes and sayings have to be explained to Tate because English is not his first language. Autism is. And we still think in English.

Read other blogs from Lisa here.


The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.