Bilingual Children with Autism: New Findings, New Approaches

April 4, 2023

It is no secret that children with autism often experience unique challenges. However, many experts and families believe bilingual children with autism face even more significant hardships than their peers, especially regarding language development and acquisition. Research in 2019 states that 12 million children speak another language besides English at home. Within this bilingual population, 1 in 4 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and lives in a bilingual environment.

So, in considering the experience of children with autism, it’s vital to remain inclusive and considerate of all communities. In doing so, we address the experiences of bilingual children with autism in ways that improve the quality of their daily experiences while promoting their participation in the outside world. It’s imperative to address the needs of these children in a way that honors and respects the intricacies of their heritage and culture while making access to universal communication more possible every day.

This blog post explores the experiences of bilingual children with autism and the many factors families should consider when considering treatment options. Additionally, we will explore how ABA therapy can be a meaningful approach to addressing these core difficulties and improving confidence in bilingual children with autism.

Through ABA therapy and the hard work of loved ones, bilingual children with autism gain relevant skills. They can also utilize their dual language abilities in a way that empowers them to connect more deeply with themselves and others. It’s time we recognize the advantages of bilingualism in children on the spectrum. It is possible to reframe what was previously considered a deficit.

For more expert autism blogs like this one, check out these resources!

What Are the Standard Clinical Recommendations for Bilingual Children with Autism?

Over the few decades, many clinicians and developmental practitioners have aired on the side of gently encouraging bilingual families to select one predominant language when communicating within their household. Recommending a single language in the neurodivergent home is a pervasive approach, especially when the child is nonspeaking or struggles with communication.

Autism experts had previously accepted that bilingual children with autism would be more likely to experience confusion and frustration when learning and generalizing information in multiple languages. These struggles could increase problem behavior, symptoms, and regression. Knowing this, providers typically do not recommend bilingualism in autism.

However, recent findings suggest that bilingualism does not negatively impact language acquisition for children with autism.

With contrasting beliefs, it’s clear we require more research to understand bilingualism and autism. Currently, practitioners working with children on the spectrum, from speech pathologists to education specialists, still need to clarify the complex topic related to bilingual language exploration for these children. Many families are left to decide how to proceed with their children.

What Should a Family with a Bilingual ASD Child Consider?

The American Speech Language Hearing Association defines bilingualism as using two or more languages. Bilingual families with children on the spectrum face tough decisions regarding language. Families navigate complex considerations like whether they should concentrate on only one language, and if so, which one? They must also consider the benefits and disadvantages of utilizing a bilingual model.

Families must also consider the implications of language barriers and which language is utilized by the child’s education system. Additionally, they must consider the language the child most often gravitates towards. And when considering the characters in the child’s life, which language do they use most often?

Should the family elect to remain bilingual other considerations must be made. These include how bilingualism will impact the child’s ABA therapy or school progress. Will being bilingual make it harder to access experienced providers? Lastly, many families wonder just how vital a practitioner’s advice should be in making such a monumental, life-altering decision.

Many experts recognize that ASD appears different in every child it touches. Some even suggest it is more likely to find two cases of children with varying disorders with more in common than two clear autism cases. However, with all the differences, social communication impairment remains an established and recognized core deficit many with ASD experience.

Some children with autism will never develop speech and may live with limited verbal skills, among other oral challenges. These communication features in autism can make these familial considerations even more critical.

What Challenges Do Bilingual Children with Autism Face?

For children with autism, developing language can be daunting, and they may struggle to comprehend just how it all functions together. Understanding and expressing emotions can exacerbate these difficulties. Additionally, problems with facial recognition or social and emotive cues can make navigating social interaction more problematic.

Those with bilingualism and autism, in some cases, may experience additional anxiety or stress, as interpreting multiple languages may lend to further processing. Additionally, because autism affects communication, many individuals experience limited opportunities for social practice and experiential learning. Advocates who propose restricting language exposure suggest an environment where multiple spoken languages make lives for those with ASD significantly harder. However, many experts recognize only some families have the choice or privilege of being monolingual.

How Does ABA Therapy Help Families Address Language Difficulties?

ABA therapy is an evidence-based practice that is beneficial in addressing many of the challenges faced by bilingual children with autism. ABA therapy often lowers anxiety, enhances communication and social skills, increases language acquisition and comprehension, and reduces problem behaviors. Additionally, ABA therapists can support parents of bilingual children by creating an individualized plan for their child’s language learning that addresses cultural needs.

What Are Strategies for Improving Life for Bilingual Children with Autism?

Communication can be a significant challenge for those with bilingual autism. It is crucial to provide adequate instruction and positive reinforcement when teaching communication skills to be successful. ABA practitioners can utilize several strategies to help enhance bilingualism in children on the spectrum. For example, providing a nurturing environment where children feel safe and accepted is essential. Feeling comfortable lends itself to a place where children are safe being curious and asking questions regarding language.

Additionally, providing visual support when learning new words and phrases is instrumental. Engaging in age-appropriate activities involving both languages and plenty of practice opportunities is also essential. Social stories can also provide a more visualized context for children on the spectrum to understand.

Finally, it is crucial to ensure children are exposed to native speakers when possible to help them understand the nuances of each language.

What Should We Know About Bilingual Autism Now?

Bilingualism can be challenging for anyone and presents a complex task for those with autism. But it also provides a child on the spectrum with new concepts and ways to connect with the world. Being bilingual can add employment value and safety and help kiddos establish better relationships.

Current research assessing bilingualism and autism determined that those exposed to multiple languages typically did not experience other language delays than their peers. In this case, said peers were monolingual. This conclusion suggests that more research is required to understand how practitioners should inform parents of vital next steps when the household is bilingual. Additionally, parents should base their language decision on the child’s language experience, processing, and environment.

Additionally, practitioners need further refinement when working with multicultural clients on developing language. When selecting a course, any behavioral approach must consider the client’s personal, family, and cultural circumstances. A bilingual child with autism’s treatment plan will require personalization and an accurate evaluation of the child’s abilities.

ABA Centers of America Embraces Bilingual Children with Autism 

ABA Centers of America works tirelessly to provide a comprehensive approach to helping children who struggle with difficulties related to bilingualism and autism. Our ABA practitioners are trained in science-based practices proven to help improve challenges like communication. Enhancing life for bilingual children on the spectrum is entirely possible with patience and dedication.

Over time, our bilingual clients often increase their language acquisition and comprehension, leading to more expression. Additionally, we support parents of bilingual children on the spectrum through parent training.

Lastly, we respectfully consider your goals and cultural considerations as a family. With the proper support and guidance, bilingualism can be an asset for some with autism. Together, we can explore those options.

If you have any questions about ABA Centers of America and how we may improve your family’s life, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 844-923-4222 or click here.