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One of the central issues in the upbringing of neurodiverse children is language – how they will learn it, when they will start talking or how they will manage to maintain progress and cope with the challenges that arise. The situation might be seemingly exacerbated if the child is brought up in a bilingual family and the family language(s) do not match the societal/school language. These children often experience some learning difficulties which might intuitively lead caregivers to believe that exposing them to more than one language is futile or even harmful to their development. This can be especially true if their insecurity is fueled by the well-intentioned but often over-generalised advice given by healthcare and educational professionals.

Oftentimes there is a focus on the weaknesses of neurodiverse learners and the ways they do not measure up to what is considered the average standard. However, such treatment “can have a detrimental effect on how they see themselves. Using a strengths-based approach from the outset, so they also understand that they have amazing strengths, would help to give them a much more balanced outlook.” [1]And that is why educating ourselves, as parents, on bi-/multilingualism is crucial in order to be the knowledgeable “sparring partners” for teachers, health professionals, family and friends.

Down Syndrome

In 2011 the United Nations designated 21 March as World Down Syndrome Day intending to raise awareness, educate the public about the complexities of this condition, embolden the community and champion equal rights for people with Down syndrome.

Children with the syndrome often have difficulties in the language domain, for example, their language skills develop later than what is considered the average age and usually more slowly in almost all linguistic areas.

Aiming not to put additional pressure on the children and ensure an interference- and inhibition-free acquisition of the school/societal language as much as possible, bi-/multilingual parents are usually advised not to raise their children with Down syndrome with more than one language. Being responsible for these big decisions could be overwhelming as caregivers worry about a myriad of things and their effect in the long run – if their child can learn a second language, if it would be too much of a burden, if the process would affect the proficiency in the first language or if the focus should be places on the school language at the expense of the home language(s).

However, the common assumption that learning a second language would impair the development of the first has been disproven. Research, albeit sparce, is significant and unveils that exposing children with Down syndrome to a second language, even from a very early age, does not affect the proficiency in the first one and does not interfere with the overall cognitive development. Furthermore, it shows that children with Down syndrome can indeed become adequate bilingual language users[2],[3]. These children retain their great receptive skills and follow the same developmental curve for the productive skills when directly compared to their monolingual peers.

Therefore, treat your child with Down syndrome like you would your child without it – expose the baby to the family language(s), to the societal language when the time is right and do not spare them any family/community activities and interactions for the sake of language. Allow for as much input and exchange as possible. Odds are your child will cope beautifully!

Autism Spectrum Disorder

World Autism Awareness Day, which we celebrate on 2 April, is part of the United Nations’ global effort to promote understanding and knowledge about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), aiming to improve the lives of the people with an ASD diagnosis.

A prominent area usually affected by ASD is the domain of language development and children who have been diagnosed with it, for example, start to talk later and/or struggle with reading and/or writing.

            Raising a bi-/multilingual child with ASD could be a daunting experience. Just like families with children diagnosed with Down syndrome, the advice from healthcare professionals and educators is frequently to raise autistic children monolingually, despite the scientific evidence available around this topic. Therefore, being apprehensive about causing confusion or any further delays in language development, parents often abstain from exposing children with ASD to more than one language, even if they grow up in a bi-/multilingual family.

However, according to research, these actions might yield the opposite effect. The child might end up feeling singled out and robbed of the sense of belonging to the family unit, where their fragile sense of connection is the strongest. Such language deprivation is sure to also affect not only the bond with the home-language community but also disrupt the family dynamic, negatively impacting the child’s socio-emotional development. In addition, even more damage might be done if the parents are not proficient in the societal language, which will prevent them from using emotionally affective language that is crucial for forming bonds. And imagine having to abandon the home language when your autistic child starts school! This would fully destroy some already established routines they thrive on, potentially leaving them distressed and confused.

Indeed, research shows that not using your native language with your child with ASD might have heavy consequences not only for their emotional development but also for the emotional parent-child bonding [4] In addition, unlike the common belief that children with ASD must have an even harder time when exposed to two languages, current research shows that there is no difference in the speed of language acquisition between monolingually- and bilingually-raised children. Even more, it has found that autistic children are indeed capable of becoming bilingual to an acceptable level, which might even facilitate their language development. Having access to an array of simpler words in more than one language could be a powerful source of support.

Parents of neurodiverse children normally have the same worries when it comes to language – that being raised bi-/multilingually might interfere with the level of proficiency in the school/societal language they are able to attain and with their overall cognitive development. The research we have so far unequivocally confirms that both children with Autistic spectrum disorder and Down syndrome will not be harmful to their linguistic development and they can even profit from being raised bi-/multilingually. However, it is vital that caregivers stay up to date on research to be able to make informed decisions about their family language planning.

Author: Maria Potvin


[2] Katsarou, D. and Andreou, G. (2021) Bilingualism in Down Syndrome: A Greek Study, International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 68(3), pp.376-382.

[3] Buckley, S. (2002) Can Children with Down Syndrome Learn More Than One Language?, Down Syndrome News and Update, 2(3), pp.100-102.

[4] Park, S. (2014) ‘Bilingualism and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Issues, Research, and Implications’ NYS TESOL Journal, 1 (2), pp.122-129.