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ASD in Multilingual Families

In an increasingly multicultural country, clinicians and educators in the US are often confronted with autism spectrum disorder in children from bilingual or multilingual families. A persistent concern has been raised as to whether the language development of children with ASD is further delayed or disrupted because of exposure to two (or more) languages in the home.

The November issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry includes a paper (Uljarevi et al., 2016) that addresses the question in a review of the empirical research on multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders. The focus of the review paper is not limited to ASD, but in this commentary we summarize the authors’ findings with respect to ASD only.

Uljarevi and colleagues located ten papers that reported on research regarding the language development of multilingual children with ASD (multiASD), compared to monolingual children with ASD (monoASD). Most of the studies examined the question in young (preschool-age) children. The authors report:

. . . either no significant differences between mono- and multiASD groups for early gesture, babbling and vocalization, age at first word/phrase and overarching communication skills ratings . . . or superior performance of multiASD group for babbling and proto-imperative gesture use.

. . . no significant differences were observed for receptive total vocabulary, general receptive language, expressive vocabulary and general expressive language . . . . Better performance for multiASD was found for a measure of expressive total vocabulary. . .

Measures of social interaction, social reciprocity, pragmatic language and interpersonal skills were not found to be different between mono- and multiASD populations . . . multiASD group performed better on certain aspects of pretend play when compared to monoASD group. (p. 1210)

Uljarevi and colleagues (2016) note that, despite the absence of supportive data, parents reported that they “were being advised by professionals that use of more than one language at home is harmful for their children’s development.” (p. 1212) The authors maintain that: “. . . assumptions about the potential difficulties (and benefits) of multilingualism for individuals with developmental disorders should be challenged within communities of professional practice.” (p. 1212)

They recommend that: “public policy should challenge the monolingual default, and . . . reinforce the fact that there is no clinical, linguistic, or cognitive evidence to support routine recommendation of mono-language use for children with neurodevelopmental disorders who are from multilingual backgrounds.” (p. 1213)

Clinicians and educators who express reservations about exposing children with ASD to more than one language in early childhood run the risk of fostering additional guilt or conflictual feelings in parents who seek to retain the cultural value of their first language but worry about setting additional barriers to their child’s language development. Such reservations expressed by professionals may needlessly alienate families and create a distraction by emphasizing elimination of multilingual exposure rather than focusing attention on evidence-based strategies that support language development and use.

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