Bilingualism and Autism

This is autism awareness month and so I thought it would be a good thing to write a post about autism. I’ve been meaning to do this all month and I’m running out of time! A question that people often ask me is whether bilingualism is an added burden for children with language impairment. We demonstrated through a large study of about 1200 preschool kids that no, bilingualism doesn’t increase risk for language impairment. Okay, but what about more severe impairments? What about children with autism who by definition have particular difficulty with social interaction–wouldn’t bilingualism be a source of additional impairment? Given what I know about language impairment I think the answer is no. And, I wonder too if bilingualism would provide children with these kinds of interaction difficulties additional practice at trying to see other’s perspectives. Because language is learned through social interaction—perhaps bilingualism, by learning TWO sets of social interaction rules would HELP children with autism. Okay, maybe that’s going a little beyond what we currently know, but there are some researchers who are starting to tackle the question of bilingualism and autism and it’s really exciting to see this.

One paper I found in the 2005 Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism. This paper, by Kremer-Sadlik is an ethnographic study of children with autism whose families are bilingual. Through interviewing and observation, the author examines the reasons why the families stopped speaking to the child with autism in the home language and switched almost entirely to English. Mainly reasons cited include recommendations by clinicians and doctors. The concern was that these children would become “confused” by exposure to more than one language and that input should be “simplified” by using English only. Kremer-Sadik goes through the available research demonstrating that in fact, children with autism can and do learn two languages. What was most heartbreaking for me was the isolation within the family that was experienced by the child with autism. All the members of one family spoke Chinese, but only English was used with the child who had autism. This resulted in more limited interactions with the child if the rest of the family was using Chinese. And, for the father whose English was more limited, the conversations became more stilted. This has the effect of reducing input to a child when what we want to do is INCREASE input and opportunities for interaction. I think this is an unintended consequence of asking families to only use English with a particular child that we, as clinicians may not always think about.

Two other more recent studies provide additional data demonstrating that bilingualism does not make autism worse. Petersen, Marinova-Todd, and Mirenda (2012) compared vocabulary knowledge of bilingual and monolingual children with autism. A total of 28 preschool children participated, 14 were Chinese-English bilinguals and 14 were monolingual English speakers. Non-verbal IQ was higher for the bilinguals than the monolinguals, so it was used as a co-variate in the analyses. Once IQ was controlled for there were no differences between the two groups on English language vocabulary or conceptual vocabulary, but there was for total vocabulary. The effect for total vocabulary was because the Chinese-English speaking children knew words in both of their languages. Within the bilingual group there were no differences by language. This study is important because it demonstrates that vocabulary acquisition is comparable across monolingual and bilingual groups. Note however that the bilingual children have larger total vocabulary (summing up the two languages together). This is because they need to learn how to meet linguistic demands in both their languages.

Another question about bilingualism has to do with the timing of a explore to a second language. Some children have bilingual exposure from birth. Others have their second language exposure when they first start school—often preschool or kindergarten. Some children may move between countries when they are older exposing them to a second langue at a later point. A question is whether there are differential effects in early vs. later exposure to two languages. Obviously, it takes some time to learn a second language, so children starting that language later need to time to catch up. But, it’s also important to know whether this can slow down the first language.

Children with Autism have particular difficulties with social-pragmatic aspects of language. It may be that children with these kinds of difficulties have more problems navigating the social demands of two languages. Children who are bilingual have less exposure to each language but still need to learn the pragmatic demands of each. Hambly and Fombonne (2012) compared bilingual children with autism who had exposure to two languages from birth and those who started exposure to their second language at 12 months or later. Children were between the ages of 3 and 6-1/2 year old. Vocabulary measures (using the MCDI) and the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-Second Edition were given. Parents answered questions on the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised and responded to questions on the Social Responsiveness Scale. Results indicated differences on the VABS-II—interpersonal domain section, where the simultaneous bilingual children scored highest, followed by the monolingual and finally the sequential bilingual children, but there were no significant differences in expressive or receptive vocabulary. Also, there were no differences in achievement of language milestones.

The Hambly and Formbonne results indicate bilingualism doesn’t seem to affect language learning in children with autism. While they did not discuss the differences on the interpersonal scale, I wonder if the result seen for the simultaneous bilinguals isn’t suggestive of some of the advantages of longer-term bilingualism. The sequential bilinguals scored lowest on this and it may be that with more bilingual experience they would catch up, but this is speculative. Nonetheless the finding that language acquisition isn’t affected negatively by bilingualism should quell some fears. As clinicians we should encourage and support parents’ decisions to raise their children bilingually if that is their intent.

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  1. #1 by Anonymous on April 29, 2013 - 9:35 am

    Oh how I’ve waited for a post like this. Though my son is not on the spectrum, he is developmentally delayed and presented with many autistic like behaviors at 3 years of age. Living in Italy, many Roman doctors and clinicians told us we should stop speaking English and focus on Italian. I completely disagreed, and now I have a bilingual child who is constantly growing and learning and COMMUNICATING with both of his families. The research cited is so critical in understanding what goes on in the minds of special needs children. Keep it coming!

  2. #2 by Elizabeth D. Peña on May 9, 2013 - 9:12 am

    Thanks for your comments. Hearing these stories is what keeps me doing what I’m doing. And know that bilingualism does not harm or slow down your child. Communication– in whatever language is available to your child is what is most critical.

  3. #3 by Grant (youngheart80) on May 29, 2013 - 3:15 pm

    That is so fascinating! I was just looking for info on this topic. My son is on the spectrum, though at the high functioning end of it. As a young man, I became fluent in Spanish from some time spent overseas and have always wanted my children to learn it at an early age, but had stopped my plan when my son was diagnosed. Fortunately, both are still young (5 1/2 and 4) and now I feel a lot more disposed to trying. Thank you.

  4. #4 by Heather on November 17, 2013 - 9:57 am

    There is another study by Kay-Raining Bird et al. (2012). Which looks at bilingualism and autism that sheds some light on this as well. ‘Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorders’. It is reports widespread bilingual first language acquisiton in children with autism – very heartwarming.

  5. #5 by Elizabeth D. Peña on November 18, 2013 - 11:08 pm

    Thanks so much– I hadn’t seen that, but I will!

  6. #6 by cobblea on October 27, 2014 - 11:53 am

    Hello, I am searching for articles/research on second language partial-immersion programs for kids with autism or other language and learning disorders. I’m finding plenty on raising bilingual children with special needs, but nothing on enrolling these children in partial immersion programs. The immersion program I am trying to match research for starts in kindergarten, ends in 5th grade, and the children are taught half day in the L1 and half in L2. Over the elementary years, the language in which the subjects are taught is varied: some grades have social studies in L1 and other years, it’s in the L2, and so on. The connecting Middle School runs a traditional-style foreign language department and is not an immersion school. Most children arrive in kindergarten as mono-lingual L1 speakers. Are you aware of any research in support of or in opposition to enrolling children with special learning needs in this type of immersion program or do you, blog authors, have any thoughts or opinions on this topic? Thank you.

  7. #7 by Jane Doe on May 27, 2015 - 4:55 am

    I was raised bilingual, and aqcuired English as a third language in high school (though I think my exposure to English-speaking TV and the internet has aided me a lot more than the English classes ever did). I’m now in the process of being diagnosed, but chances are likely that I do have ASD.

    In my own experience, I think having been raised bilingual has not been detrimental, and possibly is actually helpful, because it allows me to communicate with more kinds of people. I know in what kind of situation I should use which language, and the language also helps me understand the culture, which in turn helps to lessen the amount of faux pas that I often encounter.

    I’m now in the process of acquiring a fourth language. I’m not sure why; maybe I’m just gettig old? or maybe the techniques used to teach me is less compatible with my learning habits?; but it’s going pretty slow.

  8. #8 by Kimberly on September 30, 2015 - 3:13 pm

    Hello, I am a college student researching second language learning in kids on the autistic spectrum. This topic has been chosen for academic purposes (TESL is my minor) as well as personal (my nephew has autism). Needless to say, THANK YOU SOO MUCH!! The page has been extremely helpful!

  9. #9 by Elizabeth D. Peña on September 30, 2015 - 9:20 pm

    Glad this helped– there’s some very nice research going on–

  10. #10 by amena on April 5, 2016 - 2:56 pm

    What about being autistic and your parents speak persian and the child needs to be evaluated for asd and the evaluation is in english. How the child is supposed to pass the test if the only language he was exposed to was persian?

  11. #11 by Elizabeth D. Peña on April 6, 2016 - 4:03 pm

    The child would need to be tested in Persian rather than in English, otherwise any results obtained would be invalid.

  12. #12 by Patsy Laibinis Jaeger on June 17, 2017 - 9:03 am

    My 20 year old son has been raised bilingual, German/English – raised in Germany (I’m a native English speaker, father is native German speaker.) Our son was diagnosed with high functioning Autism the beginning of 2017. His vocabulary is very advanced in both languages, and he sounds like a native speaker in both. His language development was slower than NT kids but caught up before he started 1st grade. He had years of speech, occupational & behavioral therapy. Up until last year he was diagnosed with ADHD (without the “H”). I truly believe that his bilingualism greatly benefited him.

  13. #13 by Elizabeth D. Peña on June 20, 2017 - 1:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story

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