Beyond the B.A.S.I.C.S. Blog

Teaching Language to ASD Students in a Bilingual Home

May 23, 2012


Most speech-language pathologists recommend teaching only one language (English) to children with ASD.  Because language is so complex, and because children with ASD already struggle to learn the subtleties of such a nuanced communication system, further burdening them with a second language makes things more difficult at best and detrimental to overall communication at worst, they argue.  Using a single language certainly narrows the scope of what therapists need to teach, and it makes finding (and compensating) those therapists easier to do.  It seems obvious, then, that bilingual households should agree to speak and teach their children only English.  As with most things, though, the solution is rarely that simple.  Surprisingly, “There is no research evidence to suggest that… the English-only advice improves the abilities of children with autism…”  (Dr. Susanne Dopke).  So, if hearing a second language doesn’t make things worse, what effect does eliminating it have?

Some things to consider if you decide to speak only English with your ASD child:

  •    How will your child interpret the fact that you speak English with him and
    your native language with each other/his siblings/everyone else?
  •    How much social modeling and interaction will your child miss out on if
    he only understands what’s said directly to him?
  •    How comfortable are you with giving up your native language and
    speaking only English?  If you’re not entirely comfortable speaking
    English, you will speak less overall, which in turn means you will speak
    less often to your child.
  •    Is it realistic to expect everyone in the household to give up their native
  •    Statistically, once parents start speaking only English, the second
    is lost not only to the child with ASD but to the entire family.
  •    In bilingual households, especially households that speak both Spanish
    and English, the two languages often get mixed together, and taking the
    time to filter out one language detracts from the value and spontaneity of
    natural language models.
  •    Eliminating half of all spoken language in a household creates a less
    stimulating environment for the child and makes communication more
    difficult for everyone in the home.
  •    “…Having access to easy words from more than one language can be a
    resource both for the child and the therapist…”  (Dr. Suzanne Dopke)
  •    If parents only speak English, they will have to change and/or limit
    activities in their native language (ex: church, other cultural activities),
    which can be detrimental to the family as a whole.
  •    Eliminating family activities that take place in the native language provide
    one less way for the child with ASD to connect with family and culture.
  •    Social skills are notoriously the hardest thing to teach to children with
    ASD.  If the social norms in a bilingual home are dramatically different
    than those the child is exposed to at school, and if eliminating the second
    language necessitates eliminating and/or changing the social aspects of
    home life, how will the child learn appropriate cultural behavior?

So, there’s no evidence that eliminating the second language in a bilingual home is harmful to language development in children with ASD.  Further, it appears that eliminating the second language may create a strained and unnatural level of communication in the home, which can be detrimental to both the child with ASD and his family.  Moreover, providing twice as many “easy” words by maintaining the second language may potentially make communication easier for the child with ASD.  Although finding bilingual support staff may be more difficult (and more expensive), it may be worth it.  Until there is definitive research one way or the other, the choice to eliminate a second language must be weighed carefully on a case-by-case basis; what’s right for one family is often completely wrong for another.  Consult your speech-language pathologist and your behavior analyst to decide what’s right for your family.


Carias, Sofia, MS, CCC-SLP.  “Bilingualism and Autism Spectrum Disorders.” (video).  17 February 2008.

Dopke, Susan.  “Is Bilingualism Detrimental for Children with Autism?”  February 2006.

Kremer-Sadlik, Tamar. “To Be or Not to Be Bilingual: Autistic Children from Multilingual Families.” 2005.

By Melissa L Ruiz, BCaBA


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