What you need to know

Many children on the spectrum have difficulty with language development and understanding. Beyond speaking and grammar, language difficulties can include trouble with communicative hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions.1 Because these language barriers exist for autistic individuals, multilingual parents are often wary of teaching multiple languages to their child(ren) on the spectrum. Parents often worry that learning two languages will make the learning and communication process more difficult and that language impairment will worsen and keep their children from speaking as proficient as their monolingual peers.2 These fears are justified at a first glance at the communication factsheet that accompanies an ASD diagnosis. Language development may already be a challenge, and logically, a second language would make it more difficult for your child to improve their language and communication skills. However, several studies have shown quite the opposite. 

Teaching two (or more) languages does no significant harm

In a systematic review of available literature, five studies from 2012 and 2013 found that autistic children from bilingual families showed no additional delays in language learning or cognition.3,4,5,6,7,8 Two other studies found that children on the spectrum who had adopted bilingualism were making progress in learning both languages and suggested that with the proper support for both the home language and second language, children with ASD can be raised bilingually with no negative effects on communication development.9,10 Even further, a 2020 study found that autistic individuals who successfully learn and use more than one language have better social skills and more overall satisfaction with social life and interactions.11 Similar studies suggest there are a number of benefits that accompany exposing a child on the spectrum to more than one language and that, in some cases, bilingualism accelerates language learning and communication.

There are several benefits to teaching more than one language

Learning a second language necessitates the use of hand gestures and eye contact to communicate wants and needs, a skill that is typically difficult for children with ASD. Similarly, toddlers learning more than one language are more likely to vocalize or coo, and their imagination and skills used in play are higher compared to toddlers on the spectrum only learning one language.12 Learning more than one language also teaches children how to shift their attention between two tasks with ease and, on average, makes them better than their monolingual peers at doing so.13 

Bilingualism can also bolster family relationships. Oftentimes, when families decide against adopting a second language, an individual with ASD ends up being the only person in the house who does not speak the home language. This can have negative effects on relationships with parents and siblings who only speak their native language and can invoke feelings of loneliness and isolation for children on the spectrum.14 In contrast, when bilingualism is adopted, family relationships and communication are reinforced as caretakers can be more responsive and specific with words, emotions, and gestures when speaking in their native tongue. This not only allows for better language modeling but also permits children on the spectrum to participate completely in family gatherings and cultural experiences.15,14 

Multilingualism is a personal decision

While studies have yet to find significant negative effects of bilingualism, doctors and therapists frequently recommend families to teach only one language to their autistic child(ren).16,3,4 Again, the logic is sensible, and it is obvious that bilingualism is a multifaceted and complex topic. Therefore, when you are making the decision about whether to teach more than one language, talk to your practitioner, but also take into account your family dynamics and your own fluency in your native languages. The strategies and success rates are different for each family, and it is important to understand what will be expected and needed from parents, family members, teachers, therapists, and other individuals involved in the process.15 Take time to look into resources that are available and remember that if you could learn a second language, your child(ren) probably can as well. 

Advice and learning tools for multilingual families:

End Notes

[1] National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), Autism spectrum disorder: communication problems in children, (2020)
[2] Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Foundation, Autism and bilingual children, (2015)
[3] Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2, pages 26-38, (2014)
[4] Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, pages 1342-1352, (2012)
[5] International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 47:1, pages 52-64, (2012)
[6] Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6:2, pages 890-897, (2012)
[7] Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, pages 1499-1503, (2012)
[8] Journal of Child Neurology, 28:7, pages 945-948, (2013)
[9] Bilingual Research Journal, 34:2, pages 185-200, (2011)
[10] Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology, 14:1, pages 53-63, (2006)
[11] Autism, 24:8, pages 2166-2177, (2020)
[12] Journal of Child Neurology, 28:7, pages 945-948, (2013)
[13] Child Development, 90:4, pages 1043-1060, (2019)
[14] Fourth International Symposium on Bilingualism, To be or not to be bilingual: autistic children from multilingual families, pages 1225-1234, (2005)
[15] University of Washington handout, Bilingualism and autism spectrum disorder
[16] Disability and Society, 28:4, pages 527-541, (2013)

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