Bilingualism and Autism – A Barrier or an Advantage?

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Making language flash cards for fundamental words; apple, lemon, peach, melon, grape and orange.

Carla Cornelius discusses the positive impact bilingualism can have on children and their families. 

Bilingualism, the ability to use two languages with equal or semi-equal fluency, is a way of life for many families across the world. In Britain, too, there are many communities and families where two languages are spoken.

The benefits of being exposed to multiple languages from a young age are widely discussed. The assumption is that being bilingual makes your brain more flexible. But is this really true?

Research shows that human beings have an innate mechanism for language acquisition. We are biologically programmed to ensure we are connected with our immediate social environment. Infants as young as four months are able to distinguish between different languages, showing a preference for the languages spoken by their parents. Infants are able to detect a person talking silently in their mother tongue by paying attention to their facial movements and are more drawn to their face as a result. They can also discriminate word boundaries by listening to the rhythm of the languages spoken around them. These are truly fascinating findings since infants’ language is not fully developed, yet their brain can process it with highly accurate detail. This evidence may corroborate the idea of the bilingual brain’s increased flexibility. 

Bilingual benefits

Although some children acquire two languages simultaneously from birth, others acquire the second language sequentially. Studies on bilingualism and brain scanning highlight that the acquisition process is the same in both languages and for both groups, without additional stress on the brain. The child starts babbling, which then turns into single words, followed by two-word combinations and finally, more sophisticated combinations of words to form sentences. The bilingual child will switch between the two languages with apparent ease and, at times, might mix them within a sentence. This process called ‘code switching’, rather than being a sign of confusion, is very sophisticated and follows logical grammatical rules. For example, words from one language are borrowed to complete a sentence in the other language and grammatical rules are automatically applied to the word order and the verb tense. 

Autism and bilingualism 

But is this still true for a child with autism who has delayed language or a-typical language development? Is bilingualism still an advantage and does the language acquisition process follow the same steps? 

Language delay is a key component in the identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the choice of bilingualism is therefore a difficult subject for both parents and professionals. A high proportion of parents assume that bringing up their child bilingual would cause further delay. Moreover, most interventions to support language development are delivered in the dominant language of the country where the child lives, to the detriment of the home language. Are these the only obstacles?

Language is more than just verbal behaviour conveying social conventions and emotional meaning with variants according to different cultures. Deciding to expose the child to only the dominant language dilutes cultural heritage and alienates them from their family life.

Imagine a child who cannot participate in a conversation held over a family meal because the family language is alien and inaccessible to them, or a parent whose interactions with their child revert to rehearsed commands due to their own limited fluency in the intervention language. The result will be parents struggling to make emotional connections with their children. This dilutes the attachment bond between them – a worrying outcome as we know that emotional connections are fundamental for social interaction.

I personally prefer the idea of early social exchanges between parents and children based on natural interchanges through their common language. These interactions should focus on supporting mutual understanding, rather than aiming exclusively to produce and teach language. This option would promote a natural language acquisition process overall more positive to the child. 

“MORE SHOULD BE DONE TO ENSURE THAT CULTURAL DIFFERENCES ARE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT WHEN DEVELOPING EARLY INTERVENTION PROGRAMMES.”

Negative impacts

Having established the social advantage of being bilingual for a child with ASD, do we have any evidence that being bilingual impacts negatively on the language or general development of children with ASD?

Interestingly, most of the research on the subject highlights that bilingual children with ASD have comparatively equal vocabulary size and comprehension as their monolingual peers regardless of their presenting social skills. Two studies show that bilingual children with ASD show an increased amount of functional gestures compared to monolingual children after intervention. This is a considerable improvement, since gestures are more sophisticated expressive language skills. Moreover, there is an indication that some executive function skills, such as planning and switching easily between activities, may be improved in neuro-typical bilingual children, which could be an interesting line of research to explore for children with ASD. 

Although research findings are positive, they suggest that it is the quality and the amount of language exposure that makes the difference. In fact, the amount of language exposure was the strongest predictor of vocabulary skills for both typically developing children and children with ASD.

Evidence proves that there is no negative impact in raising bilingual children with ASD. When provided with adequate language exposure and good quality affective social exchanges, many children with ASD are capable of acquiring two languages.

However, more should be done to ensure that cultural differences are taken into account when developing early intervention programmes and when looking at diagnostic tools for ASD. Particularly, emphasis should be given to assessing language competencies by understanding the wider social context and providing parents with the right tools to be able to use their own language to support their child’s development. 

Dispelling the myths around bilingualism and supporting the use of the home language whenever possible could be the starting point.

Sources

Byers-Heinlein K., Lew-Williams C. (2013) Bilingualism in the early years: what the science says in Learn Landsc Volume 7(1) Pages 95-112.

Dai G. D., Burke,J. D., Naigles D., Eigsti E. M., Fein A. D. (2018) Language abilities in monolingual and bilingual exposed children with autism or other developmental disorders in Research in Autistic Spectrum Disorders Volume 55 Pages 38-49

Gervain J. and Werker J. (2008) How infant speech perception contributes to language acquisition in Language and Linguistics Compass Volume 2 Pages 1149–1170

Smith J., Bent C. A., Green C. C, Woollacott A., Hurdy K. (2020) Non-native Language Proficiency May Influence the Responsiveness of Bilingual Parents Towards Young Children with Autism: A Short Report in Sage Journals Volume: 5

Carla Cornelius

Carla Cornelius is a freelance trainer specialised in Early Communication and Language development with particular interest in Social Communication Difficulties, Selective Mutism and Bilingualism. Carla has worked in a range of Early Years SEN and inclusion leadership and advisory roles in the private, voluntary and public sector.

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