Can a child with autism manage using more than one language?
At OTARC, we are very interested in exactly this question: Can Autistic children learn more than one language? If so, what can we reasonably expect for how well they will develop each language? If not, what is the best advice we can give to families where English is not the home language, or to families who use both English and another language (e.g., mum prefers to speak one language and dad prefers another)? And what is the impact on bilingual parents of attempting to use their non-native language when interacting with their Autistic child?
When this question was first posted on Ask-a-Researcher (March 2011) we did not yet have an answer, as no research on this topic had been published. However, researchers around the world were starting to get interested in this topic, including some of us at OTARC, and groups in the UK, USA and Canada (and perhaps elsewhere). Now, a handful of papers have been published. While more research is needed, there is also some consistency across the early findings, which is good news! A consistent result (i.e., different researchers finding a similar result when studying different groups of participants around the world) is one we can start to have confidence in.
‘Common sense’ suggests that learning one language is hard enough for our Autistic kids, so learning two languages at the same time is probably too hard to make it worth the effort. However, early research results suggest that bilingualism may not be the big problem for Autistic children that ‘common sense’ leads us to believe. In 2006, Seung et al. published a single case study showing how both Korean (family language) and English (community language) were successfully incorporated into the intervention program of one boy with autism in the USA. Four other papers have since been published (Hambly & Fombonne, 2012; Ohashi et al., 2012; Peterson, Marinova-Todd, & Mirenda, 2012; Valicenti-McDermott et al., 2013), each comparing the language skills of groups of young Autistic children from bilingual and from monolingual households. The consistent result seems to be that there are no overall differences in the assessed language skills or achievement of language milestones milestones (i.e., the age at which the child first uses words, or at the emergence of short sentences, etc.) of the bilingually exposed children, compared to the monolinguals. Yes, all children were delayed in their language and communication development, as we would expect for autism. But the bilingually exposed kids were no more delayed than their monolingual peers, suggesting that bilingualism is not necessarily a problem. Interestingly, some Autistic adults are known to have special/’savant’ skills for language learning (just like some have special skills for mathematical calculations, or creating amazing works of art). People with the unusually special interest in and ability to learn multiple languages are known as Polyglots.
So, the existing research suggests that exposing young Autistic children to more than one home language is not particularly problematic. It is important to remember, though, that this conclusion is based on a small number of studies, and each has some limitations meaning that the same result might not apply to all children with autism and their families. Case studies (e.g., Seung et al., 2006, and the example of Polyglots) only tell us about one person, so the results cannot be generalised to all Autistic people and all bilingual families. The other studies are based on larger groups, and all differ slightly in how they studied the question. But given that they all seem to draw a similar conclusion, we might start to have confidence in the result that bilingualism is not bad for Autistic children. Interestingly, there are many published studies showing that bilingualism does not seem to be a problem for children with two other types of developmental disabilities – down syndrome and specific language impairment (SLI) – and there is now a lot of research showing bilingualism is not a problem for typically developing children, and in fact brings some benefits to how children think. The developmental and language difficulties of these other groups of children are quite different, however, to those of Autistic children. So it is important that more research is conducted specifically about bilingualism for Autistic children, as we cannot assume the same answer will be true for all children with different types of developmental conditions.
A number of OTARC research students are now conducting studies looking at bilingualism and Autism, under the supervision of Dr Kristelle Hudry and other staff. We have conducted some interviews with health care and educational professionals to hear their opinions, and confirmed that many professionals do not know what advice to give to bilingual families with young Autistic children. So we are starting to spread the word about the recent research on this issue. We are also just finishing up and analysing the data from our first studies where we have directly assessed a group of bilingually exposed and monolingually exposed young Autistic children (aged 2-5 years) and their parents, and will report the results of these studies as they become available during 2014. We are also planning more research with preschool and school-aged children (aged 7-9 years) for 2014.