For Parents

For Parents

Impact of language choice on children’s play ideas

Bilingual children with autism play differently in their heritage language than they do in English

What do we know already?

Many families in the United States speak more than one language at home. These families use both languages for a variety of reasons: to talk to their children, to give directions, to talk about feelings and emotions, to speak with other family members who are visiting, and in many other situations. When a child from a bilingual household is diagnosed with autism, parents often fear that speaking in more than one language will make it harder for their child. Some professionals also recommend that parents of children with autism only speak in English under the assumption that two languages could cause further delays.

However, research has found no significant differences in the language skills of bilingual children with autism compared to monolingual children with autism. There is also some evidence that children with autism who grow up hearing two languages do better on some activities when hearing their “heritage language” (the language the family use besides English). Additionally, if children do not learn both languages used at home, they may miss out on important conversations and opportunities to build their social skills (a parent talking to a grand-parent, parents talking to one another, etc.).

The researchers who conducted the current study were interested in whether bilingual children with autism showed different play behaviors when they heard their heritage language as compared to English.


What was the study?

In this study, four bilingual children with autism played with researchers for several weeks. The researchers gave children encouragement and directions throughout each session. However, researchers switched which language they used each session: on one session, they would speak to the child in English. On the next session, they would speak to the child in their heritage language (Spanish or Korean for the kids in this study). In the next session, the researcher would go back to using English, and so on. The child could communicate in any language he or she wanted to, but the researcher always stuck with the same language during each session.


What did they find?

All four children showed more diverse play ideas when the researcher spoke to them in their heritage language, and less diverse play ideas when the researcher spoke to them in English. Although children continued to play on days when the researcher spoke in English, the children had more play ideas when the researcher spoke in their heritage language.


What does that mean for me and my child?

There are several important takeaways from this research article. One is that even though professionals often suggest that parents only speak to their child with autism in one language, we don’t have evidence that this actually helps children to learn language more quickly.

Another is that your child may have important ideas that he or she might not express when hearing English. As we have discussed in many other blog posts, direct parent involvement in language therapy sessions is very important, and this is yet another reason why they should be participating! Since parents of bilingual children can speak in both the heritage language and English, parents can help children express all of their ideas. If we only use English during language therapy, children might not express all of their play ideas, and we may miss important teaching opportunities. If you speak more than one language at home, ask your speech therapist about how you can be involved in therapy and when you jump in try speaking in your heritage language.



Lim, N. & Charlop, M.H. (2018). Effects of English versus heritage language on play in bilingually exposed children with autism spectrum disorder. Behavioral Interventions, 1-13. doi: 10.1002/bin.1644