Working with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is never an easy mission, let alone children diagnosed with ASD who is being raised in a bilingual family and/or multilingual community. However, recent research has provided more clinical evidence to support families speaking their home language with their child. Within the clinical community, there has also been a greater amount of discussion related to the intersection of bilingualism and ASD.
Regarding parent education, the social-emotional impact of speaking one’s home language is especially important to bilingual families. The home language bonds the family members and connects them with their community. Studies have also indicated an increased social distance between parents and children with ASD if the parents choose to give up their home language (Angulo-Jiménez et al., 2018). We educate parents on the benefits of continuing to speak in their home language or the most comfortable language or dialect that would connect them with their child. Thus, the parents will have the ability to provide better language models in the least restrictive way. This research result applies to all bilingual families, including those with typically developing children or language-delayed children. Quoting from Professor Betty Yu (2017), a bilingual speech-language researcher at the San Francisco State University, “The US is the most multilingual country in the world, but it is strongly ideologically monolingual.” This statement reflects one of the strongest reasons why bilingual families have become inclined to give up their home language. While more research regarding bilingualism is emerging, it is crucial to help parents of children with ASD understand that communicating in two different languages will not impede their children’s development. Rather, they will see more positive gains if they continue to communicate in both languages.
As bilingual speech-language pathologists, our recommendations and professional advice are greatly valued by the parents of the bilingual families that we work with. We should encourage families to feel comfortable speaking to their children in their home language or the language that connects them with the community. We should also emphasize the benefits of bilingual education for all children. It is also our responsibility to provide parents with the most appropriate services and recommendations as we continue to support their children.
When bilingualism and ASD are both factors impacting speech-language development, parents often raise questions about whether to continue speaking to their child in another language, or in multiple languages. Research has increasingly shown that raising children to be bilingual has multiple positive outcomes. Typically developing children not only are capable of developing adequate expressive and receptive language skills in both languages but also exhibit enhanced ability to acquire vocabulary in both languages as well as visible improvement in sentence structure and increasing sentence complexity in their home language (Restrepo et al., 2010; Simon-Cereijido, 2015). Similarly, for children with communication disorders, there are an array of benefits related to exposure to multiple languages. As of yet, no negative impacts have been found from raising children with ASD [JO1] in a multilingual environment. In fact, children with ASD can still become bilingual, despite developing language skills in both languages at a different pace than typically developing bilingual children.
Angulo-Jiménez, H., & De Lenguas Modernas, E. (2018). Bilingualism and autism: Addressing parents’ frequently asked questions. Perspectives, SIG 1, 3(2).
Restrepo, M. A., Morgan, G. P., & Thompson, M. (2013). The efficacy of a vocabulary intervention for dual-language learners with language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 56, 748-765.
Simon-Cereijido, G. (2015, May). Preschool language interventions for Latino dual language learners with language disorders: What, in what language, and how. In Seminars in speech and language (Vol. 36, No. 02, pp. 154-164). Stuttgart: Thieme Medical Publishers.
Smith, V., Summers, C., Mueller, V., Carillo, A., & Villaneda, G. (2018). Evidence-based clinical decision making for bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders: A guide for clinicians. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 3(19). 10.1044/persp3.SIG14.19.
Yu, B. & Xia, S. (2017). Heritage Language Choices Among Chinese Families of Children on the Autism Spectrum. ASHA Convention 2017