Let me start with a spoiler, in a good way.
I want to stand up on my little SLP soapbox and say first and foremost:
Using two or more languages with a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will not:
- Make it harder for them to learn one language or
- Cause them to have “worse” language than monolingual (one-language) children with ASD
In fact, it may provide some benefits to their language and social development!
Ok, so now that we have that up front, I will say this: Learning a language is an astounding feat. Learning two seems twice as hard, especially for kids who may be struggling with one language already. I have had many families report that their well-meaning medical providers told them that they should only talk to their child with autism in one language, usually English.
I can see the logic behind this: kids with autism are more rigid and thrive with clear rules and boundaries. Kids with autism may already have difficulties with language and flexibility of thought. Wouldn’t two languages make all of these challenges more complicated?
However, I want to respectfully challenge that logic! When we look at research studies about bilingual children with autism, the evidence is clear:
1. Being exposed to two languages does no harm:
a. In 2011, researchers Hambly and Fombonne found that bilingual children with ASD did not experience additional delays in language compared to monolingual children with ASD.
b. Valicenti-McDermott and their team found that there were no differences in cognitive functioning, language skills, or symptoms of autism comparing monolingual and bilingual children with autism.
c. Most recently Reetzke, Zou, Sheng and Katsos found that bilingual children with ASD didn’t score any differently than monolingual children with ASD on measures of language or social functioning.
d. Finally, Peterson, Marinova-Todd and Mirenda found that bilingual children with ASD didn’t have significant differences in understanding or speaking between their two languages, indicating that children with ASD can successfully become bilingual.
2. Being exposed to multiple languages may have benefit:
a. Hambly and Fombonne discovered that children exposed to two languages since birth scored higher on social interaction measures than children who were exposed to first one language, then another.
b. Valicenti-McDermott’s team concluded that compared to monolingual children with ASD, bilingual children were more likely to vocalize and use gestures.
Another added benefit is that language builds relationships. So, if a child is excluded from the language used most frequently at home, it can mean it is more difficult to build meaningful relationships with members of their family, community and culture. This might exacerbate feelings of being “different” or left out that the child may already be facing because of their diagnosis.
So, my advice to parents is always: use the language you are most fluent in with your child. If you grew up speaking Spanish, so can your child. If your native language is Somali, use that with your little one. If you can speak fluent Amharic, model that for your children.
For other members of the child’s team, including teachers, medical professionals and speech therapists:
- Practice culturally sensitive care.
- Don’t discourage families from using their native language with the child. Do encourage all of the same good language techniques that you recommend for monolingual families (e.g. reading and interacting with your child, playing language-rich games, expanding the child’s language by modeling slightly more advanced language than what they are using. If they are using one word, you use two. If they are using two, use 3-4 to say the same thing).
- Address the child in a language you are fluent in to provide good language models. Use an interpreter if necessary for both the parent and child!
Hambly and Fombonne, 2011: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21938563
Valicenti-McDermott, 2013: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22859698
Reetzke, 2015: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25679338
Peterson 2012: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21947709
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