Mom’s Corner: Autism and Bilingualism: Our Family’s Journey

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by Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz

We moved to the United States 4 years ago, just as my daughter was about to turn 3. At that time she spoke only a few words in Spanish.  We put her in a regular, monolingual, preschool and she added some English words to her limited vocabulary.  We didn’t know why she wasn’t speaking but both my husband and I where bilingual and we both knew we wanted our children to be bilingual and ideally multilingual.  When she was diagnosed with autism a few months later and the pediatrician suggested we should only speak to her in English we ignored his recommendations completely and that was the best decision we have ever made about my daughter’s education.

My little girl is now 6 and besides autism and sensory processing disorder, she has also been diagnosed with a motor processing disorder, which makes motor planning in general and language difficult for her.  She is doing grade level work in her 1st grade classroom with supports, accommodations and assistive technology and she speaks English and Spanish.  Her language development is certainly behind that of her peers and sometimes it is hard to understand her in both languages. Both of my children prefer to use English but at home we all speak Spanish and she not only understands it but is expected, encouraged and motivated to speak only Spanish to communicate at home.

I have met so many moms at conferences and speech therapist’s waiting rooms who speak a language other than English at home but followed someone’s advice to speak to their child only in English because that person thinks that their degree gives them the ability to know what is be better for the child without taking into account their culture.  I see many of these parents struggling to communicate with their child in broken English and then turning around and having a conversation between themselves or with a sibling in their home language and it breaks my heart.  These parents where advised to speak only English to their children with autism regardless of the parent’s English proficiency.

Does Teaching Two Languages to a Child with Autism  Negatively Affect his Speech and Development?

A study done in Canada on children with language impairments and how they did in French immersion schools compared to children with no language impairment concluded that “that the [language-impaired] children acquired proficiency in French at no cost to first language development, academic progress, or cognitive skills”. Bruck,M (1982). In another study, Crutcheley et al. (1997) tested bilingual and monolingual children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) on various language tests. They found that bilingual children with Semantic Pragmatic difficulties (SPD) score the same or better on language tests than monolingual SPD children.

But the real question is: What happens when a child does not speak his home language?  We are lucky, in our family we all speak English fluently, but that is not the case for most immigrant families, for these families speaking two languages is a necessity not a choice. In many cases taking away a child’s home language means that child’s communication with his family will be limited.  The consequences of this are endless: limited exposure to language, exposure to English that is used incorrectly, a breakdown in the child’s relationship with his parents, siblings and extended family, less opportunities for learning about social  interactions, less opportunities to participate in community and family events and the list goes on and on.  A study by Warton et. Al. (2000) reported that immigrant parents who communicated with their children with autism where “more affective and engaging with their children when they used their native language.”  Tamara Kremer-Sadlik of the University of California observed several families of children with high functioning autism  (children who have autism and are verbal) who where advised to use only English when communicating with their children. Most of the families stopped using the home language only when communicating with the child with autism and dinner time observations revealed that the child with autism did not take part in family conversations, parents did not address the child with autism often and English was used seldom.

My Theory

I do not have a degree in medicine or speech-language pathology but I know we made the right decision.  My daughter, wants to be included and wants to participate and be treated like everyone else both at home and at school so if everyone in my home speaks Spanish she wants to speak it too.  She will sometimes ask to watch her favorite movies in Spanish instead of English and I have a feeling she does it because she is trying to improve her Spanish.  You see, even though she speaks both languages Spanish is a lot harder for her because Spanish words are longer, sentences have more words and pronunciation of some sounds is harder for her physically both in the complexity of the mouth and tongue movements required and because of the larger amount of motor planning involved in speaking a language that simply requires more sounds to say one word , for example: “necesito” is a longer and more complicated word than “need”.

My little girl loves talking on Skype with her grandparents who live in Guatemala and telling them about her trips to the beach or her day at school.  Being bilingual boosts her self esteen. Speaking Spanish is part of who she is, it’s part of her identity. She knows that other children at school speak only English and she loves pointing out people who are speaking Spanish when she hears them at the grocery store or the library. My daughter lives in a bilingual world and stripping her of one of the two languages that make up this world would be to rob her of half of her opportunities to communicate, socialize, express herself and learn.

Autism and Research on Bilingualism

Being a passionate advocate for bilingualism I read every research paper and article on bilingualism that I can get my hands on.  I am also an advocate for children with autism and I have written a little on both subjects separately.  And even though I have always know that raising my daughter bilingual was the right choice I am amazed of how much sense it makes when you look at the research on both Autism and bilingualism separately.

Children with autism struggle with social interactions, language and attention and in many cases children with autism are developmentally delayed. Learning two languages from an early ages has shown to improve all of these areas.

  • Research has found that bilingual children have better language skills in general even showing more neural activity in the areas related to language,.
  • One study found that the children of Mexican immigrant families had better social-emotional skills than their African-American and Anglo-American peers of similar socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Neurological studies demonstrate that people who are bilingual from an early age can concentrate more easily, are better at multitasking and develop Alzheimer’s and dementia later than people that are monolingual.
  • Different studies in bilingualism have found that language and cognition are interdependent rather than independent issues and proceed through similar mechanisms in response to similar experiences, and with mutual influence on each other, so that better language skills have a direct relation to better cognitive skills.
  • A Study from Goldsmiths University in London suggests that children who know two languages strengthen their cognitive development: “Learning a mathematical concept in Bengali and English, for example, deepens understanding as ideas are transferred between languages.”

Children learning two languages at an early age are exercising some areas of the brain more than children learning only one language.  If you have a weak muscle it makes sense to exercise it to make it stronger, so if a child with Autism has deficiencies in some areas it makes sense to exercise these areas of the brain to make them stronger too.

Learn more about the benefits of bilingualism HERE.
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Featured Columnist and Blog:  Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz, Growing Up Bilingual

Paula moved from her native Guatemala to SW Florida with her husband and two children and together they are discovering what it means to live life between two languages. Paula is a bilingual freelance writer and the founder of GrowingUpBilingual.com. She writes articles in Spanish and English for both magazines and the web on parenting, bicultural and bilingual education and disabilities. She is a passionate advocate for bilingualism, Latino familias and disability rights and the proudest mamá on Earth.

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