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5 Things I’ve Learned From Raising My Special Needs Son Multilingual

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“Good morning, Chris,” I greet my three-year-old toddler.

“Good morning, Chris,” he repeats. And his echolalia reminds me that he has speech therapy today. 

“I want cookies,” Chris grabs my hand and leads me to the kitchen. 

It’s only three words, but I’m excited about his recent progress. 

A year ago, I was very much in denial about my son having speech delay, let alone autism. I gave a talk for Women in Language 2022 about how my perspective on multilingual parenting and special needs children has changed

But before I go into the lessons I’ve learned, I want to make sure I clarify the terms I’ll be using.

Important Terms to Know

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
The unique lens (not label) through which a person views and interacts with the world. Each individual’s brain is wired differently and requires different levels of support.

Neurodivergent
This term refers to the beautiful, diverse ways the brain processes and behaves in the world.

Neurotypical
Individuals with behaviors that may be described as “typical.”

Speech Delay
Speech and language delay can show when a child isn’t communicating or expressing themselves. Autism is not always the cause. Multilingualism does NOT contribute to this.

Love
The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

Identity
Who we are plus the thoughts and beliefs that shape our mindset and behavior.

If you’d like to view the recording of my presentation, you can still purchase a ticket for the Women in Language conference.

Better yet, nominate more Black language learners to be speakers so we can diversify the language learning space! It’s so important to hear more stories and experiences from Black linguists. It was so comforting to share my experiences with so many people and I hope you can learn from what I’ve learned. 

1. Love and Identity Intersect in Parenting

For years I carried the burden of trying to enforce both my son’s Black and Mexican heritage. 

Even during my divorce from my Mexican partner who only speaks Spanish, I almost stressed myself out trying to get the report from Chris’s autism diagnosis translated. To make sure there was an interpreter present with the mediator. To have my own lawyer assist my ex with getting the agreement for our divorce translated. 

My responsibility to is to raise my son to love himself and be able to make his own decisions. It’s not my responsibility to remind him that he is Mexican or even to teach him Spanish. It’s an honor to raise him multilingual and to take care of him. I do this out of love.  

2. Generational Trauma Is Real

Looking at love and identity means re-examining the way discipline and care were handled in my home growing up. My mother experienced abuse in her childhood (and adult life).

Fortunately, I did not experience constant physical and verbal abuse the way my mother did, but the emotional and psychological impact definitely found its way into the way my mother handled my teenage bouts with depression, my transition into womanhood (it was incredibly lonely and confusing), and conversations around mental health.

And this is not to shoulder the blame at all. Mom did the best she could with the tools available to her.

As an adult, I acknowledge that while things could have been better, moving forward I owe it to myself and my son to try and make the future one where conversations around mental health don’t feel entirely unnavigable or taboo.

3. It's Okay to Grieve and Start Over

Earlier this year it felt like two funerals were going on at once. 

In one coffin lay my marriage, in the other lay the parenting experience I fantasized about since I was a little girl. 

I had always wanted to raise my child to speak multiple languages. And while that can still be a reality, I’ve had to adjust the way that I go about it and have more patience and grace with myself and my son. 

4. There Is Strength in Routine

A good night’s sleep can make a difference. I downloaded an app blocker to make sure that I’m cutting back on screen time an hour before bed. 

Chris has a sleep disorder. His body doesn’t produce as much melatonin as a neurotypical child. I give him melatonin at least half an hour before bed. After a nice, warm bath and a few episodes of SpongeBob, he’s out like a lightbulb and sleeps the whole night. 

Having structure means having security and stability. No, it’s not always perfect, and that’s OK. 

5. We Will Go Days Without Speaking Another Language

As far as Japanese and Spanish, the most opportunities I have are with songs and some of the multilingual toys and books I’ve got lying around my apartment. 

With speech therapy, I’m able to see the different situations the therapist creates for Chris to give him the opportunity to express himself, make choices, and follow directions. It takes a lot of patience.

Some days we won’t speak a language other than English because we’re simply too busy with other things. I’m applying for financial assistance for his therapies (those copays add up fast) I’ve learned to work through the guilt around that reality. 

There will come a time when Chris is able to express himself more and all the hard work put into it will be worth it. 

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Errol de Jesús

Multilingual Mommy

Welcome to my blog. By day I’m a copywriter helping mission-driven brands grow. And by gosh I’m a busy single mom raising her autistic son multilingual. I speak Japanese, Spanish, and SEO—also currently learning German!

What languages do you speak?

Errol de Jesús

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