Bilingualism, the knowledge of two or more languages, exists worldwide, and is also growing in the UK. It is now widely agreed that growing up bilingual has no negative consequences for neurotypical children. Speaking more than one language has been linked with a number of cognitive and social benefits such as advantages in communication skills, perspective taking and flexible thinking. It has also been linked with a slight delay in acquiring language.
Why did we do this study?
However, there is currently very little research looking at how these advantages and disadvantages might be relevant to children with autism who grow up in a multilingual household. Because of the lack of research in this field, parents and practitioners cannot make evidence-based decisions regarding the use of bilingualism. This study aimed at understanding bilingual parents’ perspectives and experiences regarding the use of multiple languages with their autistic or non-autistic children.
What did we do?
The project involved conducting interviews with bilingual parents. Some were parents of autistic children, others were parents of neurotypical children. The interviews explored the choices the families have faced, and what the families feel the influences are on the languages they speak in their household.
In addition, data from a previous study involving both children with autism in monolingual households and children with autism in bilingual households were re-analysed. The data included measures of language and social development, helping us learn more about the relationship between autism and growing up in a multilingual household.
What did we find?
Our results showed that unlike parents of neurotypical children, parents of autistic children were worried about potential negative effects of bilingualism on the development of their child. They were particularly concerned that the child would be confused, and/or experience language delays. However, parents also pointed out that bilingualism allowed their child to maintain a close bond with their family.
Overall, the results show that parents and clinicians need more research on the topic of bilingualism in autism, specifically addressing the question of potential developmental delays, in order to make evidence-based decisions. Importantly, the results also highlighted the role of bilingualism to maintain close social and emotional connections between the child and their families and communities.
You can find on this page a simple fact sheet to help parents and practitioners make decisions about autistic children and language in the home.
The findings have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and are available at:
Hampton, S., Rabagliati, H., Sorace, A., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2017). Autism and bilingualism: A qualitative interview study of parents’ perspectives and experiences. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60(2), 435-446.
We ran 4 other studies on the topic of bilingualism in autism:
- “Autism, bilingualism, and childhood” focused on the development of autistic and non-autistic children growing up in bilingual environments
- “Autistic bilinguals: language history and social life” focused on the diversity of bilingualism experiences of autistic bilingual adults, and on how being bilingual shaped their social life
- “Autism, Bilingualism, and Cognition – Mind” focused on the relationship between bilingualism and the social mind in autistic and non-autistic adults
- “Autism, Bilingualism, and Cognition – Brain” focused on the influence of early bilingualism on the networks of the social brain, in autistic and non-autistic adults
The field of “bilingualism in autism” research is still extremely new, and we have just scratched the surface. There is still a lot to do to better understand the experience of autistic bilinguals.
Who conducted and funded the project?
This study was run by Sue Fletcher-Watson, Hugh Rabagliati, Antonella Sorace, and Sarah Hampton. The study was funded by the Challenge Investment Fund of the College of Humanities & Social Science (University of Edinburgh).