UBC bilingualism expert Stefka Marinova-Todd says there’s no reason why children with autism should be discouraged from speaking another language, or two
Children with autism spectrum disorders often have troubles communicating and developing language skills. Parents are often told to focus on speaking and teaching just one language to their child. Teaching more than one language to children with autism is typically discouraged. On the eve of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, Stefka Marinova-Todd, associate professor at UBC’s School of Audiology and Speech Sciences and director of UBC’s Centre for Intercultural Language Studies, debunks the perception that bilingualism hampers language development in children with autism.
Several years ago, you and your colleagues decided to examine if bilingualism interferes with language development in children with autism. What did you find?
At the time, there were no other published studies on bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), so we began with a small-scale study that compared the vocabulary size of Chinese-English bilingual children with ASD and children with ASD who spoke only English (known as monolingual). We chose to focus on vocabulary size because it’s considered to be an accurate representation of language development. We found that bilingual children with ASD acquire vocabularies that are just as rich as monolingual children with ASD, indicating that bilingualism does not have a negative effect on the language development of children with autism.
Today, as a result of this work, we know that clinicians are increasingly less likely to recommend that families of bilingual children with ASD should stop speaking more than one language – something that was the predominate advice only a few years ago!
Why did you decide to pursue this area of research?
In the courses I teach at UBC’s School of Audiology and Speech Sciences, I emphasize the cognitive, social and emotional benefits of raising children bilingually. It is important for future speech-language therapists to know that bilingualism is not detrimental to the language development of children with language delay and/or disorders. In fact, imposed monolingualism is much more likely to have negative effects on these children’s language development and socialization.
When it comes to determining the needs of bilingual children with autism, what more needs to be done?
Today, there are far more bilingual and multilingual individuals around the world than monolingual, and these numbers are constantly growing. This means that the number of bilingual patients and clients in clinical settings is constantly growing as well.
We are now working on another project that will push the boundaries a bit further and examine whether bilingual children with autism experience cognitive advantages. This phenomenon, a bilingual brain boost so to speak – has been reported in children who don’t have developmental disabilities. The results are still to come but we might find that children with autism raised bilingually experience added benefits as well, which would be very exciting news not only for us, but for their parents, teachers, and health-care providers too.