Can I Speak My Home Language?

According to the most recent estimates of the Census Bureau, there are at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes. Recent data also tells us that the increasing prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is evident in families of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status, and includes families from linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Can I Raise My Child with Autism to be Bilingual?

As I stated in an earlier blog post, research from within our field tells us that the connection a parent makes when they speak to their child is invaluable. If parents are limited to speaking a language that they are not fluent in, the richness of these interactions can be easily lost. Despite the many documented benefits of raising a bilingual or multilingual child, parents of children with ASD who are non-native English speakers are often faced with the difficult decision of whether they should speak to their child in their native language or attempt to speak to them only in English. It is a question I hear all too often: “Should I speak to him/her in (my home language)?” or “I heard that it might confuse him/her…and/or delay language further if we speak more than one language.”

It is reasonable for parents to ask such questions of professionals given that a core characteristic of ASD is difficulty and/or delays in language and social communication. But when these questions come up, professionals need to present the facts: to date, there is no documented evidence to support a belief that parents should speak in only one language to their child. Unfortunately, there are some professionals who make the recommendation to speak only in English if the family is living in the U.S., despite the lack of a scientific foundation for doing so. This recommendation, based either on anecdotal evidence or simply a hunch, will have a lasting impact on the family dynamic.

We Can and Must Do Better

Several recent studies have investigated potential differences that may be present in bilingual children with ASD when they are compared to their monolingual peers. The results are overwhelmingly positive. One such study reported that children with ASD growing up in a bilingual home did not experience additional language delays when compared to their monolingual peers. Other reported findings show no significant differences in expressive or receptive language between bilingual and monolingual children with ASD. In fact, one study reported more vocalizations and use of gestures by bilingual children with ASD when compared to a group of monolingual peers. A more recent study also showed better performance by bilingual school-aged children with ASD on a task that required participants to quickly switch tasks on a computerized assessment.

Applied behavior analysts are also leading research on this important topic. For example, one recently published study showed a clear child preference for instructions presented in the home language when tasks grew increasingly difficult. Similarly, two separate studies showed higher levels of challenging behavior that interfered with learning when instructions were presented in English, and higher rates of accurate responding when instructions were presented in a child’s home language.

A recently published commentary gives three helpful suggestions for clinicians working with children with ASD who live in a multilingual home. First, clinicians should ask questions about the family’s language use. In other words, don’t make any assumptions. Each family will have individual preferences and needs and asking them about these preferences is a great way to start building rapport. Second, directly address the parentspotential fear of dual language exposure. I have met families who choose to speak only in English to their child. This choice should be respected. On the other hand, if a family indicates that they would like for their child to learn their home language, the family should feel supported by the clinician. Monolingual clinicians can provide support to bilingual parents by creating materials for them to use with their child that are in both English and the home language. Clinicians can also use Google translate in a pinch to communicate immediate needs with family members (it worked well for fans at the 2018 World Cup…although I don’t recommend or advocate for its use to replace a trained interpreter or, better yet, a bilingual therapist!).

Where Do We Go from Here?

As with many other areas of autism research, we need more data. However, the evidence that is available to us now strongly suggests that the recommendation for families to speak only in English to their child with ASD is misguided. If there is concern that the child will get “lost in translation,” parents can be taught to use language that is at their child’s current level (e.g., repeat single words, use only two-word phrases, or use complete sentences). Asking parents to speak to their child in a language they are not fluent in puts families at a disadvantage. It has the potential to limit the rich social, cultural and emotional experience between a child and parent. Given these risks, the lack of empirical support for such a suggestion, and the recent findings demonstrating support for the use of a native language, there seems to be no good reason to advice parents to provide an English-only environment for their child with ASD if they are most comfortable speaking their home language.

As behavior analysts, we rely on science to provide insight into the functional relationships we seek to understand. We use evidence-based practices to meet the needs of the populations we serve. And now, we are working to increase the cultural understanding and diversity of our field in order to adapt our practices so that we can best met the needs of a growingly diverse U.S. population.