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
Other blogs on the subject:
Bravo Jo! Great information for parents and professionals alike!
In our case is true. we were told to use only one language with our kid. Special since the therapies were in english. ( He was two) we try …. when he turn 4, he started using two words at the time. We moved to Colombia (all family speak spanish ) then in matter of one year he speak both languages, use sentences and answer to questions. He just need in some cases extra time to search for the right words. So we learn, not to prompt him, just be patience till he find the words. And understand all commands in both languages. All in one year ! We will do home school. So farr i’m his teacher. and he just turn five 🙂
Thanks for sharing your experience! I am glad to hear about your son’s progress. Buena suerte (good luck!)
-Jo Ristow, MS, CCC-SLP
I am instructional aide for a child who is autistic. He just move here from Russia and he doesn’t speak English. Can you give me some tips how to help him and communicate with him. Also what advices would you give, to help him focus and keep him calm. I just started working with him for about a week. How long will you think for him to get comfortable with me. How do think the routine would fall in to place. Should I be strict with him when he is suppose to do something. Example: He always wants snack early in the morning and it’s not snack time yet. What can I do? The goal for him to stick with the classroom routine and do what the class do. Looking forward to your advices and help. Thanks in advance:)
Gracias por esta informacion
Nosotros vivimos en nyc y nuestra hijo tambien tiene.dificultad.con el hablar
Nos dicen que autismo pero no estoy.segura. hay que.hacerle mas pruebas. quisiera.saber.como sigue Su hijo . So al final esta hablando fluido.wn Espanol
I went to French immersion. One of my classmates was a girl with what in retrospect was probably cerebral palsy and mild cognitive disability, and she had no problems learning two languages, even though she had a speech impediment in both languages. Meanwhile, I’ve found my autism made teen/adult second language learning harder due to poor study skills, but I picked up French easily as a preschooler. (Actually, my autism has been more of an issue learning ASL than any spoken languages. I am a lot poorer at imitating movements than sounds, and my fine motor skills are a bit spotty. Of course I was first exposed to ASL in adulthood.)
Interesting post! I’m autistic and multilingual (in fact, I’m a proto-linguist — someone who aspires to be a linguist). Glad to see bilingualism works for other folks on the spectrum, too. 🙂