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Should Children with Autism be Taught a Second Language?


While there has been little to no advice on when you can or should start introducing a second language to a child with autism, you can always start by gradually increasing their exposure to a second language.

When I first started as a therapist last December, one of my first clients asked me if learning a second language is hindering her child’s fluency in English. That was something I’ve never actively thought about, but would later find out that not only will being bilingual will not impair a child’s first language ability, it will also be beneficial for a child’s development. Here’s why:


Improved social communication skills

Children on the autism spectrum usually have deficiencies in communication skills, therefore it is understandable that parents worry that introducing a second language will negatively impact language development in a child. However, it turns out that being bilingual allows the child to engage in various forms of communication and be exposed to a second culture. Language is not just a form of communication, but it is also where we learn about our culture, norms and social identities from. This will go on to enhance their involvement in the community when they grow older as they have had exposure to various social communication skills as a child. This also allows them to relate to others of the same ethnicity and culture (Lund et al., 2017).


Increased focus and communication attempts

Research has also found that bilingual toddlers with autism made more attempts to communicate with parents and caregivers in various ways such as cooing, vocalisations, and gestures (Trelles & Castro, 2019). They were also more likely to engage more in pretend play as compared to their monolingual peers with ASD. Similarly, it was also found that developing bilingual children with autism performed better in set-shifting cognitive tasks. This could be due to the constant need of having to switch between understanding two languages. The study done by Trelles & Castro (2018) found that a child was using english to make sense of spanish words, and was able to assign meaning to words in both languages. The child was also able to toggle between both languages, and could mix them together whenever he could not find the right words to express himself in either language.


While there has been little to no advice on when you can or should start introducing a second language to a child with autism, you can always start by gradually increasing their exposure to a second language through the following ways:


  • Using simple, functional vocabulary that your child will be able to relate to and use in their daily life.

  • Increase utterance of familiar words through modeling. For example, if your child sees an apple and says “apple!”, you can expand the sentence by prompting them to say “I see apple!”.

  • Reading books, singing songs and playing games will also help introduce a new language to them in a fun way.

  • Most importantly, honour their requests regardless of language so they will gain more confidence and be more willing to learn!


Remember that every child is different, and will learn at various paces. The goal is to increase communication, so be patient and have fun with them in the process! If you’re still unsure on where and how to start, you can always seek a professional second opinion.


Written by: Cheryl Teng


References


Lund, E. M., Kohlmeier, T. L., & Durán, L. K. (2017). Comparative language development in bilingual and monolingual children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Early Intervention, 39(2), 106-124.


Trelles, M. P., & Castro, K. (2019). Bilingualism in autism spectrum disorder: finding meaning in translation. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,58(11), 1035.

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