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Jesenia Ramos
Lang-3400
Dr. Frye
Due Date- November 30, 2017

Bilingualism and Autism: Is There a Negative Impact?

Myriam Beauchamp has stated that over half of the worlds population speaks 2 or more

languages. Some countries have 2 national languages. For example Canada which has French

and English as their national languages. Because of this, many autistic children are being raised

to be bilingual. However, they are being met with several people, professionals as well as non-

professionals, advising them against bilingualism. The few studies that will be explained below

all show that bilingualism in autistic children has no negative impact in their language

development. Some studies even show a positive impact on executive function as well as social

interactions. To demonstrate this, one must understand what is bilingualism, what is autism

spectrum disorder, and how autism affects language development. Afterwards, this will be going

into detail about bilingualism in autistic children and what various studies have concluded in

regards to this topic and what advice professionals are giving to parents that must make the

decision to either raise their child monolingually and bilingually. In the end, it will be made clear

what must be done in order to encourage and help bilingual autistic children and their families.

Before studying the effects bilingualism has on autistic children, it is important to know

what bilingualism and autism are. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the most common

neurodevelopmental disorders. ASD affects one in every 68 children, with 5 times as many boys

as girls (Frith 1). Autism is classified in degrees, from mild to severe. Since it is a wide

spectrum, the behavior of each individual child differs. However, there are known to be three

core features of the autism spectrum. The first core feature in autistic individuals is reciprocal

social interaction. A big sign of failing reciprocal interaction is a lack of engagement with peers.
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The second core feature is communication. The communication I am referring to does not only

involve spoken words, but also gestures or facial expressions. Most autistic individuals have

issues understanding everyday gestures, jokes, and emotions. For example, sarcasm is a hard

concept for individuals with autism to understand. They tend to take things very literally. The

final core feature involves repetitive activities and narrow interests. Lining up toys in a pattern is

very common in autistic children. They respond very negatively to change; they tend to watch

the same videos and eat the same food every single day. This feature is less noticeable in autistic

adults because they are able to do more things.

Individuals diagnosed with ASD tend to also have issues with joint attention. In her book,

Uta Frith describes joint attention as, when two individuals are deliberately and simultaneously

attending to an object.(9) One of the earliest signs of autism is when a child shows little or no

interest in attracting the attention of another person. It may sometimes be very difficult for

autistic children to seek attention in ways that are obvious to us, for example by eye contact.

Now that we have a clear description of autism, it is important to understand

bilingualism. Bilingualism is known as an individual's ability to understand and speak two

languages. Just like in autism, there is a large spectrum of bilinguals from those who can speak

enough of the second language in order to be understood to those who are equally fluent in both

languages. When it comes to bilingualism, the two languages fix into two separate categories.

The majority language, also known as the dominant language, is the language spoken by most of

the community. Whereas the minority language, also known as the heritage language, is the

language spoken by a minority of speakers in a given community. The heritage language is

usually strongly connected to the individual's culture. Maintaining the heritage language is

important because it is important part of an individuals culture but it is also sometimes a


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necessity to be able to communicate with the majority of people within the community and also

your family.

Bilinguals are most commonly divided into two groups according to the age they began

to acquire their second language. Simultaneous bilinguals are those who learned both languages

around the same time, usually before the age of 3. On the other hand, sequential bilinguals are

those who learn the second language after having learned their first language, usually after 3. To

add, there has been some debate regarding the age cut off for either group. It has been noticed

that, in general, simultaneous bilingual adults are found to be more proficient in their non

dominant language than sequential bilinguals.

Unfortunately, many people, including professionals, advise against raising an autistic

child to be bilingual. They believe that it would have a negative impact on their language

development. This belief not only comes from the belief that adding another language adds an

extra burden on language acquisition but also for deficits that are specific to children with ASD

(Beauchamp 256). As stated previously, autistic children tend to have deficits in joint attention

abilities. They also do not interact with other children as well as a regular developing child or

even a child with a different developmental disorder. Because of this, some have hypothesized

that these deficits might make bilingual language development more difficult for an autistic

child.

Since there is such concern over an autistic child acquiring a second language and there

being such an immense population of bilingual individuals, researchers have been conduction

studies on this matter. One of these studies compared early language development in

monolingual and bilingual exposed young children with ASD (Ohashi et al.). This study

compared 20 bilingually exposed children with ASD to 98 monolingually exposed children with
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ASD. The results showed that there was no significant differences between the two groups in

regards to early language development. Furthermore, the results also showed no differences in

regards to the severity of autism-related communication impairments, receptive/expressive

language, and functional communication abilities(Ohashi et al. 895). This proves that early

bilingual language exposure, which leads to bilingualism, does not add an additional burden to

their language development.

Studies have also been conducted about the timing a second language is introduced to an

autistic child. In regards to simultaneous bilinguals with ASD, all of the studies conducted have

found that simultaneous bilinguals with ASD have performed at the same level as the age-

matched monolinguals with ASD on tests on receptive vocabulary and on tests in general

expressive/receptive language(Peterson, Marinova-Todd, 2012; Valicenti-McDermott et al.

2012; Ohashi et al., 2012). One study has been conducted in regards to sequential bilinguals with

ASD(Reetzke et al., 2015). This study concluded that there were no differences between the

monolingual and bilingual groups in regards to social interaction skills and pragmatic abilities.

Hambly and Fombonne(2012) took these studies one step further and compared

simultaneous and sequential bilinguals with ASD. The only difference they found was in the

measure of interpersonal skills on which the group of simultaneous bilinguals with ASD scored

slightly higher than their sequential bilingual counterparts.

Now that the theory in which bilingualism may harm the language and communication

abilities of autistic children has been disproven, another question may arise; How successful are

individuals with ASD in becoming bilingual?(Kay-Raining Bird et al. 62). Kay-Raining Bird et

al.(2011) conducted a study of 49 families with autistic children, 37 of them being raised

bilingually. The children that were being exposed to 2 languages often appeared to learn then
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both. However, as expected in even normally developing children, the degree in the proficiency

of the second language varied. Some children had comparable abilities in both languages, while

others dominated one language more than the other.

Not only did this study find that children with ASD can successfully acquire two

languages, it also found that children with ASD can also learn to read in both languages. Twenty

out of the 37 bilingual children with ASD were shown to have some level of biliteracy (Kay-

Raining Bird 62). Additionally, as stated previously, children with ASD are known to have

language difficulties and bilingual children with ASD are no different. However, as in all of the

other studies mentioned above, children with ASD exposed to multiple languages do not perform

more poorly than their monolingual peers in language.

Unfortunately, even though there is sufficient data to support bilingualism in children

with ASD, professionals are still encouraging parents to raise their children as monolinguals. Out

of the 37 bilingual families in the previous study, only 3 of them were encouraged by

professionals to continue raising their children bilingually. This information is very unfortunate

especially since professional opinions can affect the parents decisions. Out of the 12 children

that were being raised monolingual by choice, 5 of their families revealed that there were

discouraged to expose their children to more than one language by at least one professional.

What these professionals are taking into account is the interactions within the family. Some

professionals agree that restricting a bilingual family to using only one language can negatively

affect family interactions. This is caused by forcing a parent to speak to their children in a

language that they are not comfortable with. Also, by not allowing the child to interact with the

people that are close to them that speak a different language. For example, my son is autistic and
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a simultaneous bilingual. If I were to only expose my son to English, he would never be able to

interact with my mother, his Abuelita.

There have also been other noted benefits to bilingualism. These benefits include

cognitive benefits which includes attention control and working memory. A study done by

Bialystok found advantages in a number of tasks of executive functions. The results showed that

bilinguals perform similarly if not better than their monolingual peers. Another benefit of

bilingualism are social advantages; bilingual children have shown to be advanced in social

communication skills. This is an interesting fact especially since one of the trademark signs of

autism is lack of social skills.

Even though some professionals advise against bilingualism in autistic children, parents

are still choosing to raise their children bilingually. Just in the previous study alone, out of the 49

families, 37 of them chose bilingualism for their autistic children. Usually, the families decide to

raise their children with ASD bilingually for the same reasons as families with normal

developing children decide to. In a study by Jegatheesan (2011), three muslim families with

autistic children have stated that they have decided to maintain the bilingualism in their family

because they feel each language was important and served specific cultural and religious

purposes (Drysdale 33). English was a way into their new life in mainstream society and to be

successful. While, the native languages were a way to speak to their ancestors that did not have

the opportunity to learn English and to conserve their religious practices.

Even though most parents of children with ASD maintain the two languages in their

families, as I have stated previously, a large part of them continue to be advised otherwise by

professionals. In the study by Kay-Raining Bird (2006), 43% of the participants were advised to

only speak one language to their child. On the other hand, only 18% were encouraged to speak
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both languages. With all of the negativity I have personally heard in regards to having my child

with ASD acquire two languages, it is a very difficult decision to make.

Since there is still a large number of professionals that discourage parents of children

with ASD to continue bilingualism, there needs to be new training for professionals. As noted

previously, professional advise heavily impacts decisions being made by the parents in regards to

their children. There also need to be more public service support for families of bilingual

children with ASD and other developmental disorders. Children with ASD should have bilingual

classroom that meet their needs. They should also have speech-language pathologists,

occupational therapists, and all other support services in the languages they are acquiring.

However, for all of this to be able to be obtained, more research needs to be done

involving bilingual children with ASD. Part of the reason why professionals are giving this

advice is because there is not sufficient studies proving that there is no negative impact. Because

of this, they do not feel comfortable advising parents to continue to raise their autistic children

bilingually.

In order to support the families that choose to raise their children with ASD bilingually, a

more evidence-based practice needs to be adapted (Drysdale 35). As seen by the studies

conducted, most professionals seem to believe that encouraging bilingualism in children with

ASD may be counterintuitive since most autistic children struggle with learning one language.

However, time and time again, we see research that shows that an autistic child can acquire two

languages. Bilingual children with ASD are not at a greater disadvantage for language

development than their peers. Professionals must begin to advise these families that bilingualism

will not make their childs language delay worse. The only things the families must take into

consideration is their individual, family, and cultural circumstances (Drysdale 35).


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The sigma of bilingualism having a negative impact on language development is not only

seen in children with ASD but also children with other developmental delays and even with

normal developing children. Even though many studies disprove this theory, some professionals

still are advising parents of autistic children to raise their children monolingually. Bilingualism is

such a beautiful thing, it is a shame for bilingualism to be lost because of this negative advice

when it has been proven to not cause any more delay in various aspects of development.

Bibliography

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Disorder: Making Evidence Based Recommendations. Canadian Psychological

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Drysdale, H., van der Meer, L., & Kagohara, D. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder from

bilingual families: A systematic review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental

Disorders. V. 2, 26-38. 2015.

Frith, Uta. "The autism spectrum." Autism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

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Hambly, C., & Fombonne, E. Factors influencing bilingual expressive vocabulary size in
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children with autism spectrum, disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. V. 8,

1079-1089. 2014.

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