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Should I raise my autistic child to be bilingual?


By Allison Ratto, Ph.D., Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children's National 

(Para leer en español, use el botón Idioma para traducirlo al español.)

An important question many bilingual families ask is: “Is it harmful to raise my child in a bilingual home, teaching both Spanish and English?” Families have been told, “Speak only one language to your child on the spectrum” – and usually that means teaching them English only. We know that speaking two languages can be an incredible advantage for children without developmental disabilities, including:

  • Bilingual children and adults have been shown to have better executive functioning skills, such as flexible thinking and holding information in mind (working memory).
  • Bilinguals tend to have a deeper understanding of how language works and often have better social skills for resolving conflicts and understanding others’ perspectives.
  • And of course, bilinguals have the ability to speak more than one language and to better understand more than one culture.

Because children with autism often have difficulty with language, the assumption for many years was that learning two or more languages would be harmful and further delay their language skills. In recent years, however, research from the United States, Canada, and around the world has shown benefits:

  • Children with ASD do not experience greater language delays when exposed to a second language.
  • Children with ASD may show better play skills and social interaction skills when they interact with their parents in their home language, rather than in English.
  • Dr. Allison Ratto of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children's National has found that autistic children learning two languages may have fewer repetitive behaviors and fewer difficulties with getting “stuck” than autistic children learning English only.
  • Other labs around the world have also found signs that bilingual autistic children may have better executive functioning than autistic children learning only one language.
The decision of whether or not to raise a child bilingually is a complicated one, particularly when raising a child on the spectrum. The research at our center and around the world is increasingly showing, however, that there are no signs that bilingualism is harmful to children with ASD. As autistic children grow up, bilingualism can help them better navigate their world and understand themselves and their cultural heritage. 

Allison Ratto is a clinical psychologist with the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) at Children's National. Reprinted with permission from CASD CHAT E-Newsletter.

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