Autism And Language: Do Autistic Children Really Struggle In Bilingual Environments?

By Samantha Finch, Parent Herald July 26, 07:18 am

People have long believed that children with autism struggle in bilingual or multilingual environments. Given that these kids have difficulties in communication and social interaction, it makes sense that learning other languages would be hard for them. Some experts, however, believe that autistic children benefit in bilingual environments more.

Benefits Children With Autism Can Get

Learning a second or third language improves normal children's critical thinking skills, attention, self-control, reading and writing abilities, and mental flexibility, among others. According to Spectrum News, children with developmental disorders such as autism could get the same benefits if they are given the chance to learn multiple languages.

Experts found that bilingual autistic children have the same language skills like their monolingual counterparts, which means they develop social and cognitive skills at the same speed. Stefka Marinova-Todd, a bilingualism expert and associate professor at UBC's School of Audiology and Speech Sciences, said bilingual children with autism "acquire vocabularies that are just as rich as monolingual children with ASD." This shows that bilingualism does not hamper or complicate the language development of autistic children.

In addition, bilingual children with autism are more likely to use vocalizations and gestures such as pointing as a form of communication. This suggests that bilingual autistic children could excel in nonverbal communication and joint attention, which is the ability to capture or follow other people's attention.

Bilingualism Benefits Autistic Children's Families Too

The families of autistic children also benefit from bilingual scenarios. For instance, a family that migrated to the United States from China or Mexico may have to adapt to the universal language of English and put their home countries' language to the backburner.

These families switch to English with the belief that autistic children can only learn one language. This environment could result to miscommunications and phrases lost in translation. Affection and offhand remarks of parents may go missing in their struggle to communicate with their autistic child using English.

Sue Fletcher-Watson, a chancellor's fellow in developmental psychology at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, said a family sticking to a language that they don't speak fluently further isolates the autistic child, who already experiences social alienation. According to a report from Scottish Autism, a minority language conveys "affection" and "cultural identity," giving the child with autism a sense of belongingness.

Parents also feel closer to their child when they communicate with them using their minority language. Some parents feel that speaking English only restricts them and they fear that they might pass grammatical mistakes to their autistic child.

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