Friday 10 November 2017

Is learning another language a good idea for my autistic kids?

Have you thought about whether it would or wouldn't benefit your child to learn a second language? For children with autism, a lot of people assume that it's better to avoid delving into foreign languages altogether.  I've heard from other parents, with autistic kids, that the weren't sure about speaking more than one language with their children.  Anthony an Jane have both recently have French lessons at school and I wondered - is it a good idea?

Like most people with autism, Anthony has difficulty with communication.  Anthony's also autistic younger brother, David, is pre-verbal.  He makes a good effort to say some words but the reality is that to most people he still sounds like a toddle and talks in single words.  We believe he has verbal dyspraxia, which is not uncommon for autistic kids either.  This means he actually as difficulty in forming shapes and sounds.

However, David is proof that communication is a lot more than language and a Radio 4 interview with the Curley Hair Project last month showed that the rest of society can learn plenty about communication from people of the autism spectrum.  But communication and language isn't the same thing.  Would using an additional language confuse David? I think so.

Anthony on the other hand speaks well.  Yes, he struggles with some things but he can converse in conversations just fine.  While the rationale for sticking to one language when you have difficulty with communication makes sense, I had a look online and found it difficult to find specific information to back this up.  I did, however, find some information that suggested autistic children can learn two languages just as effectively as they learn one, and that it does not hinder their progress. Some research indicates that they may even thrive in a multilingual environment.

Expert in bilingualism, Stefka Marinova-Todd, and her UBC colleagues carried our a really interesting piece of research.  Their small scale study involved comparing the vocabulary size of children with ASD who spoke English only with that of Chinese-English bilingual children with ASD.  Now I know that children with ASD can have large vocabularies but still have difficulty communicating.  What this studied concluded though was that bilingualism does not have a negative impact on the language development of autistic children, and that their contextual vocabularies were just as rich as monolingual children. 

I can see a real positive for multilingual families.  Words of affection, off hand remarks and vital instructions can end up lost in translation if some family members are ore or less fluent in one language than the other.  An autistic child who already find social situations difficult or confusing could end up feeling isolated when they can't speak like the rest of their family, particularly if it's of cultural significance.  Autistic kids in bilingual families are also more likely to use gesture and point early on to aid their communication. So that's another plus point. 

But what about monolingual families?  I guess it's like everything else - go with what works for your child.

Although David may benefit from practising the sounds in other languages, I'm unlikely to deliberately teach him another language.  Jane, on the other hand, at four years old is way past her older sibling and picked up half a dozen French sayings just on our trip to France.  She may well be a budding linguist.  

And what about Anthony?

Well he has difficulty in more areas than just communication which could actually be helped my learning another language.  He may experience the same benefits of say taking French or Spanish lessons, as other children.  it could help him with other things he struggles with like critical thinking skills or executive function, which includes mental flexibility, self-control and attention.  Let's face it, as Anthony also has ADHD, anything that helps him concentrate s a good thing.

There's also the continued benefit of having fun with his friends - at the moment the language classes are good fun for the class and that's good for him socially. 

So although he might not end up doing foreign languages much once in secondary school, I'm not sure limiting his options now would benefit him at all.  I guess while he's having fun, learning and we don't see any problems developing, then it's a good thing and we'll stick with it.  And like everything else, we'll do out best to support him in it.

What do you think?  Do your kids speak any other languages?


  1. We are a bilingual family. I have written about our journey as after diagnosis we were told to
    Bring Oscar up as a monolingual. The idea being that he wouldn’t cope with learning 2 languages. I looked for research but only found a study with Down syndrome children. This said that they could learn 2 languages but that any language problem present in language 1 would also present in language 2. I am interested to learn more about this study with ASD children. My son is very successfully bilingual!

  2. I think as long as they enjoy learning other languages then it can't be a bad thing. I don't have any experience of autism and language learning but we have been teaching both the girls French and Sophie goes to toddler French classes and enjoys them. I figure that they'll pick it all up so much easier when they're younger so it's worth exposing them to it now. #WotW

  3. This is interesting and agree that so long as they are enjoying it, then why not? No experience with autism and language, but both my daughters are budding linguists. The younger one has always struggled with spelling in english, but has no problem with french or spanish. I'm sure another school would have limited her foreign languages learning due to her english spelling and I would never have seen this difference. I guess I'm trying to say (probably badly)is that you never know what will happen, unless you let them try. Hope your children continue to enjoy their lessons. #wotw

  4. I think you're right to go with it as long as they're enjoying it and having fun with it. My daughter's just started learning French at school and she really enjoys it, it's lovely to hear her sounding out new words and phrases. Interesting studies, thanks for sharing with #WotW x

  5. I thought about this also when our girl was younger. She taught herself all the numbers in Spanish before she could say them in English (thanks Dora!) and is actually pretty good at picking up accents and other words. My degree was in German so I do think it's an inherited ability :) it really must depend on the child as to whether they can cope with it or not, but no reason to withdraw them when they might enjoy it x


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