Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population speaks two or more languages 1, and more than 350 different languages are spoken across the U.S.2 Bilingual children typically follow the same developmental language milestones as children learning only one language.3
When parents continue to speak to their children in their home language, they give children the rich language models they need to make learning English even easier. How bilingual a child becomes depends on how much he hears and speaks each language in his daily life.4
But what about children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Current research does not support the idea that raising a child with autism in a bilingual learning environment will delay language development or cause a language disorder. In fact, based on recent studies, we encourage parents to expose their child with autism to bilingual language environments.5 Several studies have found no differences in language skills (including vocabulary and age of early language milestones) between children with autism who are exposed to one or two languages.
Developing dual-language abilities in children with autism from bilingual families enriches communication with their parents and the formation of ethnic identities. It also increases opportunities for social interaction inside and outside the home with extended family and the community.6
Contact Karen Guerra, our bilingual speech-language pathologist, for more information about autism and bilingualism.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.
1 Bhatia, T.K., & Ritchie, W.C. (2006).The Handbook of Bilingualism and Multilingualism. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing.
2 United State Census Bureau 2015
3 Macrory, G. (2006). Bilingual language development: What do early years practitioners need to know? Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development, 26(2), 159-169.
4 Portes A., & Rumbaut R.G. (2001). Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press and Russell Sage Foundation.
5Finsel, Tayler, "Monolingual and Bilingual Development and Autism Spectrum Disorder" (2012). Honors Projects. 56.
6Kremer-Sadlik, T. (2005). To be or not to be bilingual: Autistic children from multilingual families. In J. Cohen, K. T. McAlister, K. Rolstad, & J. MacSwan (Eds.), Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism (1225- 1234). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press. Wharton, R. H., Levine, K., Miller, E., Breslau, J., & Greenspan, S. (2000). Children with special needs in bilingual families: A developmental approach to language recommendations. The Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders Clinical Practice Guidelines (pp. 141–151). Bethesda, MD: The Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders.Yu, B. (2009). Talking with bilingual Chinese-American immigrant parents of children with autism spectrum disorders about intergenerational language practices. ProQuest Dissertation and Theses.