Which to Choose: One Language or Two?
Some children with ASD are able to learn two languages growing up, if they hear both languages often enough.
What Do We Already Know?
Many families in the world speak more than one language. There is a lot of research that shows learning two languages has many benefits for young children, both in their language skills and their thinking skills. However, we know much less about children with autism who grow up hearing more than one language. Many healthcare professionals are unsure of whether children with ASD can learn more than one language. If they can, the next question is what can parents and families do to support these children in learning two languages at once?
For typically-developing bilingual children (children without a diagnosis who speak two languages), the amount of time that a child hears a given language is highly related to their listening and speaking skills in that language. But how much time is enough? There is evidence that if bilingual children hear each language about half the time (i.e., 50/50), they perform just as well on language tests as children who only learned one language. While we know this relationship exists in typically-developing bilingual children, we do not yet know if this is the case for bilingual children with ASD. This knowledge is very important because it can help decide whether, when, and how much parents should use a second language.
What Did the Researchers Study?
The researchers looked at 77 children between the ages of 4 and 10. Some children had ASD, and some children did not. The children were all from Montreal (where French is the official language), and so all children were exposed to the French language to some degree (amount of time hearing French ranged from 6% to 99%). The researchers then gave the children language tests to assess their listening and speaking abilities in French.
It is important to note that all the children with ASD in this study were speaking in sentences, did not have an intellectual disability, and did not have any additional diagnoses. This means that the results of this study may not apply to every child with ASD.
What Were the Study Results?
The researchers found that for both typically developing children and children with ASD, the amount of time hearing French was strongly related to the children’s French language skills. This was true both for children’s vocabulary knowledge, and for their knowledge of French grammar.
Additionally, bilingual children with ASD performed in the average range on a French vocabulary test when they heard French at least 40% of the time, and they performed in the average range on a French grammar test when they heard French at least 60% of the time.
What Does That Mean For Me?
The results of this study show that some children with ASD can indeed learn two languages. Importantly, the results also show us that for children with ASD, the amount of time they spend hearing each language is strongly related to their listening and speaking skills in those languages. For parents, teachers, speech therapists, and other medical professionals, these results should make us reconsider the idea that children with ASD can only learn one language.
If you are a bilingual parent of a child with ASD and want your child to learn two languages, talk to your child’s speech therapist about ways that you can help your child’s language development in both languages.
Gonzalez-Barrero & AM., Nadiq, A (2018). Bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders: The impact of amount of language exposure on vocabulary and morphological skills at school age. Autism Research, 11 (12), 1667-1678.