early autism intervention multiple languages

Should Early Autism Intervention Include Multiple Languages? You Bet!


Many families speak more than one language in the home. It’s not just new immigrants who enjoy the benefits of speaking two languages. In an increasingly connected world, being multilingual is simply a good idea. If speaking more than one language is good for your average kid, wouldn’t it be good for children with autism? The answer isn’t clear. Experts in early autism intervention still differ on the ideal approach to languages for children with autism.

For many parents, delayed language development is the first indication that their child needs early autism intervention. The autism spectrum is often intertwined with the ability of children to communicate effectively. For a long time, early autism intervention stressed sticking with one language to boost interaction. It was assumed that keeping things simple would make it easier for late talkers to make progress. That idea is changing due to new research. It turns out that everyone might benefit from speaking multiple languages.

Improve Critical Thinking and Executive Function

The way that humans learn to speak has been studied in depth for many years. Researchers can speak with some authority on the best ways to teach children their first language, or how to teach an adult a second language. The research into language for children with developmental delays is not as well developed. New information from the University of Cambridge in the UK indicates that the same benefits are available to almost anyone who learns more than one language.

Learning a new language makes you to think of new words in terms of your first language. That requires a certain amount of critical thinking. It also requires you to use skills that scientists call executive function. This develops your mental flexibility, your attention span, and requires a certain amount of self-control. Everyone could use more highly developed executive function, but children with autism need it even more. Being exposed to more than one language is a great way to enhance language development.

There’s a Reason Sign Language Helps

Learning sign language during early autism intervention is a common therapy. The idea is to increase communication in any way that works. The same high-level thinking that produces speech is also necessary to make signs, so language development doesn’t have to wait when speech is delayed.

The ability to use sign language as well as speech is as a form of multilingualism. If expressing yourself using any available method is important, then children who use one word in English for bedtime and one word in Chinese for pajamas are expressing themselves just fine.

Different Word Orders To Choose From

One interesting aspect of foreign languages is the way words appear in different orders. German sentence structure is very different from an English sentence, for instance. One aspect of early language development is learning to put words in the correct order. “Baby talk” is often filled with charming scrambled sentences. Eventually word order becomes more standardized. That’s another reason that encouraging children to use whatever words or signs they know  is winning over converts to multiple languages in homes with autistic children.

Most of the research into early autism intervention has been done in English, so it’s natural that most of the tests for autism are based on appraisals of progress in speaking English. That’s also led schools and therapists to suggest that multilingual families stick to English only in the home. It’s becoming clearer that standard tools for language evaluation are underestimating the ability of some bilingual children who have autism, because the questions are always in English.

Why Everyone Benefits From Multiple Languages

Autism parenting involves looking for as many ways as possible to connect with your children. Increasing the family and cultural ties that come with speaking a traditional family language as well as English make it easier and more enriching for everyone.


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