One Language or Two? The Bilingual Quandry in Autism

I appreciate great research, well founded studies with clinically relevant recommendations that can be utilized by therapists and consumers.  The topic of Bilingualism as it relates to autism or even relevant research with strong implications for bi or tri language acquisition in people with autism is a subject not well researched.  However, the answer of “No, use one language only preferably English” is often communicated to families (typically Spanish speaking families) whose children have a diagnosis of autism.

While I understand the perspective of the well meaning therapist.  I must ask, why are we communicating “No use of a second language” without real evidence in practice?

Language is personally relevant as it demonstrates a person’s identity from a cultural, socioeconomic, and/or religious perspective.  Language is a source of identity.  When parents strive to teach a child a language such as Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Swarti, etc. that is typically part of who they are.  In fact, these families usually seek to teach these languages first and also add English.  When a therapist states that one language should be utilized, it is in fact, asking a family to choose their identity.  Is this fair?  Is it okay to ask a family to choose a language?

Because this topic is important to my clients, I decided to conduct a review of research so that my recommendations have evidence and not my opinion disguised as fact.  The truth is, the spare research made public, is not based in the US primarily. In fact, the research is coming from Canada and other countries.   Is this because being bilingual is the norm in other countries in comparison to the US culture that subliminally states that bilingualism or the L2 is an extra language and English is the norm and primary?  Is this fair in a world of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity?

I suspect that my readers may be thinking that these statements are acceptable for typical language development, but autism or atypical language acquisition should have different rules. While this may or may not be true, there is little research in the area of autism and bilingualism.  The research that is available has found:

1. The research that has been conducted is positive in the acquiring Language 1 and Language 2.

2. Children seem to acquire both and use one or both primarily.

The authors of the research studies separately state that the although autistic, each brain is different in how and what it will acquire.  In addition, no research stated the teaching a second language has an adverse effect on progress.  I think ineffective therapy masked as effective, unfounded information, and a therapist that does not seek to understand a families dynamic including how a family identifies themselves will have greater adverse impact.

Tasking a family to choose the language form they should communicate with their child is not only unfair but culturally dismissive.

When faced with this language quandry, families should:

1. Require that their therapy tem provide Evidenced Based Practice and Relevant Research

2. Request data that shows how their child is progressing in either and both languages

3. Be allowed to decide and not forced to make the choice

4. Get therapists that understand them from this language relevance perspective and therapists who will move beyond their comfort zone and seek to learn about the families language and utilize this language in therapy.

In short, families make many many choices.  And a diagnosis is heavy regardless of severity.  A diagnosis makes people readjust and create new norms on something that is unplanned, can be unpredictable, and not always smile worthy.  To add “no to the use of a family identifier” is not the best way to create a buy in to the therapy process.

If my family were fortunate enough to be bilingual and this news was given to us as we are a family of people that has a few sprinkles of people with special needs (an uncle with a severe cognitive impairment, cousin with CP, and a cousin with language learning disability) …I can just imagine the “kitchen table” conversation…and we would not adhere to the recommendation because our language is relevant to who we are.  In fact, we would reduce the impactfulness of the therapist and thereby listen less to future recommendations…especially if this person did not have proof that this was more than an opinion.

We would want our therapist recommendations to meet us where we are and founded in relevant research.

Enjoy and Be Empowered!

~Landria Seals Green,M.A., CCC-SLP

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