“I am now convinced that the choice of bilingualism has helped develop alternative pathways in his brain that would otherwise not have been utilized.”
Susan Rubinyi “Natural Genius: The Gifts of Asperger’s Syndrome” (2006)

Let me tell you a story. A few months ago, I attended a webinar on the Dutch school system and multilingualism as a participant. There were a lot of questions on a multitude of issues, many of them on bilingual upbringing and just before we closed off, a very concerned parent managed to make the last inquiry. A bilingual family who wanted to pass their native language to their autistic child. The child was starting school in another language. The mom was visibly concerned and unsure about how to manage bilingualism and autism. She had received advice from medical professionals to only focus on the school language but was desperately seeking other options. She was worried that raising her child bilingually will cause additional speech issues or confusion, only confirming their doctors’ prophecy. But something was telling her to look further. She didn’t want to take away the sense of identity and belonging and she couldn’t imagine that he might not be able to communicate with his extended family. Something would be missing. And rightly so. Unfortunately, she was the last one to ask a question and the hosts were rushing to call it a day. She never got a chance to expand on her child’s condition or even tell us where he was on the spectrum. Don’t do it, she was told, echoing the doctors. If your child is already struggling, they’d better forget about bilingualism and focus on the school language, so they wouldn’t complicate the situation even more. She was hung out to dry.

I was shocked and speechless, and before I was able to pull myself together and say anything, they had started with the thank-yous and goodbyes. People were logging off, not caring how this family would be affected. I was angry.

According to the World Health Organisation[1], it is estimated that one in 100 children worldwide is affected by a form of autism, with some studies suggesting an even higher number, especially in developing countries. There are close to 7000 languages spoken worldwide[2], so the number of autistic children who grow up in bilingual families is likely considerable. But how many of these children would in fact grow up bilingually? What would happen if these families got the advice the parent from my webinar was given?! I guarantee you; it will not be a pretty picture. What happened to all-children-have-the-right-to-their-home-language(s)-cultural-heritage-building familial-connections-and-well-being idea? Our rushed society is quick to judge and pass on misleading advice. There is a strong connection between the quality of home-language skills and child well-being, which starkly influences the parent-child relationship and family dynamic. Therefore, for autistic children, who may already feel isolated or different, the ability to communicate in their home language can help them feel more integrated into their family as well as connected to their culture and community.

Image by Polina Kovaleva on pexels.com

The current research, albeit sparce, does not specify any language-related disadvantages for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Just the opposite – there are clear and robust arguments in favour of raising an autistic child with more than one language. As mentioned in a previous blog post, there is no difference in the speed of language acquisition between monolingually- and bilingually-raised children. Research indicates that autistic children are indeed capable of becoming bilingual to an acceptable level, which might even facilitate language development. Bilingualism can be beneficial for social and communication skills as well as provide additional opportunities for social engagement.

A recent study by Eleni Peristeri and colleagues shows that bilingualism may have clear advantages for autistic children by somewhat compensating for their difficulties and deficits in theory of mind, i.e., “the ability to imagine what other people are thinking, to predict behaviour and intentions, to speculate about their concerns and beliefs”.[3] – an area where bilinguals generally outperform monolinguals.

Having said that, I have outlined ten strategies that can support you in managing the language dynamic at home and help with the acquisition process:

  1. Create a consistent routine and structure.

Majority of children with ASD thrive on routine and predictability. Therefore, creating a consistent language routine can be a huge help. For example, a daily plan, a schedule for language learning activities, such as reading or games. Using repetitive vocabulary to present each activity can support the process. Depending on your child, you can add a couple or more new words every so often, thus building on their already existing knowledge (scaffolding). This can help your child feel more comfortable, secure and confident.

2. Try to be as consistent as possible with your language use.

Language development for autistic children greatly depends on the interactions with a parent and therefore, the emotional connection that a parent has with a language, is passed on to the child. The deeper the emotional connection a parent has developed with a language (potentially connected with a higher level of proficiency), the better the language development opportunities for the child. That is yet another reason to use your native language with your child, rather than dropping it, especially if you are not fluent in the societal language. This way you can also foster the emotional bond, thus providing more comfort for your child.

3. Incorporate sensory activities.

Various interactive sensory activities, such as being able to use different textures, shapes and materials can help children with autism to engage more with the language, making them an active participant rather than a passive listener. Further, you can also use other sensory experiences, like touching, smelling and tasting to make sure your child is engaged and learning, for example, by incorporating cooking or gardening. In addition, deeper learning occurs during the process of doing something and a more tactile/kinesthetic approach might be highly beneficial, especially for the children who struggle with verbal communication.

4. Incorporate visuals.

A lot of children with ASD are visual learners, therefore, using an array of visual aids, such as drawings, pictures, photos, books with a lot of illustrations could be very useful to support language acquisition, especially vocabulary. Drawing together could also be quite helpful. This great resource, a Visual Support Toolkit by Autism Speaks, can help you shape your own strategies and approaches: https://www.autismspeaks.org/tool-kit/atnair-p-visual-supports-and-autism

5. Make language fun.

Language learning should be fun, engaging and motivating, regardless of your child having ASD or not. You can use songs, games, music and anything else they like and are interested in to make it relatable and exciting. Activities need to be fully integrated into the daily routines and interactions as well as connected to real life and your child’s own world, so that they can relate to them as easily as possible.

6. Follow your child’s interests.

Just like with the previous item, following your child’s interests will foster motivation. As Geri Dawson and Lauren Elder of Autism Speaks suggest, keep narrating everything that they are doing, thus providing more and more input in the target language. This way you will make it more relatable and help them learn the vocabulary that goes with the activity.

7. Consider your child’s individual strengths and needs.

Every single child with autism is unique and that’s why what works for one child might not work for another. Staying flexible and keeping an open mind to trying new strategies and approaches to find what works best for your child and family dynamic is key. If viable, provide opportunities for your child to interact with other speakers of the language, outside of your family. Some form of social activity or a playgroup would be great if tolerable.

8. Use repetition and reinforcement.

Repetition could be paired with scaffolding (see 1). Some autistic children need a lot of repetition and reinforcement to help them remember vocabulary. By creating a language routine, you will not only provide for consistency and predictability, but will also repeat words and phrases on a regular basis, which will help them retain new input. Using flashcards or labeling objects around your home, for example, will provide visual stimulation and will also help you practise languages skills in a supportive and safe environment.

9. Utilise technology.

Depending on your child’s interests and preferences, you might want to give technology a try. For instance, learning apps and games that might provide engaging and enjoyable ways to practise language skills and encourage their development.

10. Talk to the school.

Approach your child’s teachers proactively and aim to establish a close relationship with them. Building a collaborative relationship is crucial on your child’s bilingual journey. Discuss your language allocation and dynamic at home as well as the strategies and approaches you use to sustain the home language. You can ask, for example, if your child can be paired with someone in class who speaks the same home language or even get a ‘study buddy’ who is a bit older and speaks the same language.

I need to point out again that every child with ASD is different and unique, and what works for one might not work for another. Therefore, it’s crucial to work with your child’s individual strengths to determine the right support and strategies that you can incorporate in your Family Language Plan while remaining patient and flexible. All that said, it’s imperative that we focus on the strengths rather than the weaknesses and make our decisions from that place, empowering children instead of limiting them.

No thank-yous or goodbyes this time. We are here for you.

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  • Cheatham, Gr. A. and Lim, S. (2020) ’20. Disabilities and home language maintenance: Myths, models of disability, and equity’, in Schalley, A. C.  and Eisenchlas, S. A.  (eds.) Handbook of home language maintenance and development. Social and affective factors. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Mouton, pp. 401-421.
  • Davis, R., Hampton, S. C., Fletcher-Watson, S. (2022), ‘Why study bilingualism in autistic people?’, Autism, 26 (7), pp. 1601-1605.
  • Müller, L-M., Howard, K., Wilson, E., Gibson, J. and Katsos, N. (2020) ‘Bilingualism in the family and child well-being: A scoping review’, International Journal of Bilingualism, 24(5-6), pp.1049-1070.
  • Peristeri, E., Baldimtsi, E., Vogelzang, M., Tsimpli, I. M., Durrleman, St. (2021) ‚The cognitive benefits of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorder: Is theory of mind boosted and by which underlying factors?‘, Autism Research, 14 (8), pp. 1695-1709.
  • Trelles, M. P. and Castro, K. (2019) ‘Bilingualism in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Finding Meaning in Translation’, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 58 (11), pp. 1035-1037.
  • https://www.autismspeaks.org/expert-opinion/seven-ways-help-your-child-nonverbal-autism-speak

[1] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/autism-spectrum-disorders

[2] https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/how-many-languages-are-there-world

[3] https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_09/i_09_p/i_09_p_dev/i_09_p_dev.html#:~:text=The%20term%20theory%20of%20mind,are%20also%20developing%20this%20capability