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Bilingualism in Autism:

To speak (another language) or not to speak (with an autistic child)?

Typically developing children in multilingual families tend to pick up languages of their parents quite easily. In contrast to parents of typical multilingual families, parents of a child with ASD often express concerns that a bilingual environment would cause language delay and confusion for their child. This is particularly common for parents of non-verbal and minimally verbal children.

Some professionals are worried that second language exposure may delay communication in autistic children, so they advise bilingual parents of autistic children to speak in a single language (often the majority language of the country) with their child. However, there is little evidence to support this view. The studies which have compared a multilingual group with developmental disorders to a monolingual group with similar disorders consistently show no adverse effects on language development or other aspects of functioning. In the case of ASD, a positive effect on communication and social functioning has been observed. (Uljarević et al. 2016). However, autistic children who speak several languages have the same communication problems (semantic, pragmatic) in all these languages.

A lot of my vocabulary is not “understood”. I have a decent vocabulary and can use language appropriately, but very often I rely on sentences and expressions I have learned without fully understanding them (or their components).

I know only vaguely what most words mean – both in my mother tongue and in English, French etc. It is actually easier in English because I can ask or look them up, and people are more willing to explain if they know I’m not a native speaker.

I learn their meaning from the context, but often seem to have only a very general idea and sometimes that idea can be a bit off. Usually, it’s enough to be able to utilise the word but over time I frequently discover that I have been using a word or expression totally wrongly. (A.G. 2005)

Findings from many studies show that there is no basis for concerns regarding negative impact of a bilingual home environment on language or social development in young autistic children (Zhou et al. 2019). Second language exposure in children with ASD is not associated with delay in cognitive and functional communication skills (Iarocci et al. 2017), and there appear to be advantages to bilingualism in autistic children being raised in multilingual and multicultural households (Trelles, Castro 2019).

At worst, bilingual exposure in autistic children has no effect on their language development, and at best, it has advantages on receptive language, social communication and adaptive functioning (Wang et al.2018). Provided with adequate language exposure, many school-aged children with ASD (without intellectual disability) are capable of acquiring two languages (Gonzalez-Barrero, Nadig 2018).

The findings indicate that second language exposure in children with ASD is not associated with delay in cognitive and functional communication skills, either (Iarocci et al. 2017). On the contrary, speaking two languages may be beneficial for cognition in ASD (Peristeri et al. 2021). Bilingual children with ASD can keep pace with their peers with similar intellectual abilities (Beauchamp et al. 2020).

A very good approach in multilingual families is OPOL: One Parent – One Language. [However, in my (bilingual) family, we didn’t follow this rule…]

Bilingual or multilingual/plurilingual?

Those bilingual autistic individuals whose inner language is sensory-based are, in fact, plurilingual: their inner language (visual, tactile, kinesthetic, etc.) is their first (native) language. When they acquire a verbal language they become ‘bilingual’. Any other language after that will make them multilingual/ plurilingual.

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