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Autism/teaching a autistic child to be bilingual


Larisa wrote at 2011-01-06 19:24:29
Hi Cathy!

I used to have the similar dilemma. My native language is Russian. Our psychopathologies has had a different opinion. She said: it is very important for children with speech problems to get the emotions from the words and mothers of such children more succeed using there native language. Your Mandarin more expressive, more touching than your English,is not it.  It is so important  especially for autistic child to make an emotional contact with parent rather than mechanically saying the words. I know songs, poetry, stories for each word, for any situations and my child is very responsive, we are enjoying it that much together. She is not confused at all. I suppose it might work well if you will be focused on the building relationships with kid, right response not only speaking. How to do that with our kids without providing them our feelings? it is easier to do in your language. In case your child will be confused you can always stop it. The other thing our therapist said me: "we never know which channel will work with autistic child, it is worse to try many things"

All the best.

Larissa wrote at 2011-01-06 19:59:11
MYTH #7:  Bilingualism is fine for typically developing children but not for children with mental retardation, autism, language impairments, etc.

TRUTH:  According to Kohnert and Glaze 2006-2007  this myth “presumes “bilingualism” is a choice and many children have a history of “input” in a language other than English, as well as a need for English to succeed in the larger community.

This myth also presumes monolingual children with disorders do “better” than bilingual children with the same disorders (given equally efficacious intervention).  There is no evidence to support this claim.”

 According to Kohnert 2008, the traditional definition of bilingualism often focuses on “proficiency”.  Many educators and doctors mistakenly believe that a child is not “bilingual” because they are not “proficient” in any language.  

Kohnert 2008 describes a functional definition of “bilingualism”, which is based upon children’s experience(s) or need(s) for two or more languages, to varying degrees to meet their communicative needs.

Unfortunately, educators including administrators, parent educators, teachers, speech-language pathologists, school psychologists, and Applied Behavioral Analyst staff to name a few frequently “insist” or “prescribe” that children with disabilities be exposed to only English.  However, this approach may actually harm children’s learning and social development (California Department of Education 2007 cited by Head Start’s 2008 Dual Language Report).  Researchers have shown that children with disabilities can learn a second language and function as well in both languages as their peers who do not have disabilities (Candelaria-Greene 1996 cited).


NOTE:  this evidence-based information has implications for all children with disabilities

Evolving research indicates when families are counseled to only speak English or choose to do so on their own, it situates the child outside of the routine, the child becomes mostly excluded or engaged in interactions or conversations that represent a more limited range and/or frequency of communicative functions than when L1 is used.  

Also, parents and other family or speech-cultural community members are constrained to speak (and the child exposed to) a language form and manner of communication that are neither consistent with the practices of mainstream American English nor of their own home language-culture.

Although it seems natural and logical,”to be or not to be bilingual” is NOT the question.  

Children, especially those who are high functioning, are brought up in a multilingual, multicultural society and in order to help them, in spite of their disorder, to become members of their speech-cultural communities they have to be given the opportunity to learn both their L1 and L2 within their social and communication environments.

MYTH #8:  Mixing or using two languages is “bad” and/or confusing

TRUTH:  Contrary to popular belief, even among bilingual paraprofessionals, etc., there is no evidence to support language “confusion”.  Children as young as 18 months to two years of age are able to pull from their existing and developing repertoires and “code-switch” naturally.  This is a sign that children are using their linguistic and cognitive resources.  NOTE:  Please keep in mind there is “typical” code-switching and “atypical” code-switching which can be an indicator for a “true” delay.

Uncle of an autistic kid wrote at 2011-04-23 02:34:22
What about a 9 year old severe autistic boy who only has been exposed to one language (Spanish) but that still doesn't speak it and it is questionable if he understands anything in spanish but the most basic commands... What about taking him to a private american autistic specialized school where everything is in english...  Quality of treatment should be better but I fear that he will go backwards because of the change in language.  

Nicole Luke wrote at 2013-01-10 18:01:31
Hi Valerie,

I had the opportunity to read your response to the parent who asked about teaching her autistic child in both English and Mandarin and I thought you might find the following information useful. Research suggests that, in fact, there is no evidence to support restricting the child's learning to one language and that there may be detrimental effects to doing so. I am including a few citations here but there is a great deal more literature in this area.

Kay-Raining Bird, E., Lamond, E., & Holden, J. (2012). Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorders. International Journal of Language Communication Disorders, 47, 1, 52-64.

Gutierrez-Clellen, V.F. (1999). Language choice in intervention with bilingual children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 8, 291-302.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.


Nicole Luke, PhD, BCBA-D, Surrey Place Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (

heatherdb wrote at 2013-11-10 23:43:15
Hi Cathy,

I realize this is a couple of years late but I thought I would join the conversation anyway and at the very least, enlighten anyone in the future who happens to stumble across this page, as I did, to the other side of the bilingual 'debate. 'I respectfully disagree with your therapists and the answer to your query.

There are absolutely no studies that show that exposing a child with autism to a second language is detrimental to their learning and communication. 2 years 8 months old is NOT too late - children are considered simultaneous bilinguals when they are exposed to 2 languages before the age of 3. After age 3, they are considered sequential bilinguals, but bilingual nonetheless. The definition of bilingual has little to do with competence (they don't need to be perfect in both) and everything to do with ACCESS and NEED. If the child has ACCESS to two linguistic codes, they are considered bilingual, even if they are dominant in one language. Necessity is the mother of bilingualism and if you create NEED for him to speak mandarin with you, he will.

While there is limited Autism/bilingualism research out there, studies on bilingual children with cognitive disabilities/language impairment have shown that their language development is NO different when compared to their monolingual matched peers.(Bruck, 1982, Paradis et al. 2003; Genesee et al. 2004, Gutierrez-Clellen 2008, Kay-Raining Bird et al.2005; Feltmate & Kay-Raining Bird, 2008). More recent studies have shown that there are many people out there in your situation successfully raising their children with autism across the spectrum to be bilingual. (Kay-Raining Bird et al. 2012). I encourage you to google these names and authors and take a look - it is very heartwarming.

"Children with language learning difficulties are often thought to be poor candidates for dual language learning on the assumption that learning two languages at the same time will put them at greater risk of language impairment than learning one.” (Genesee 2009:9) This is a MYTH. Your answer also states that introducing a language now will 'confuse him' - THIS IS ALSO A MYTH. Please read Genesee 2009 - Early childhood bilingualism: Perils and possibilities.

As to the question 'why is it so important for him to learn mandarin'? You should not have to defend the desire to share your native language and thus, your identity and culture. It is obvious. Bilingualism will ONLY SERVE TO ENRICH the language of a child, regardless of impairment.  While I agree that some children with Autism will absolutely need simplified language input, 'simplifying language' DOES NOT equal 'ONE language' and whoever thinks it is, needs to brush up on their literature and read about the Interactional Dual Systems Model (Paradis 2001).  

There are many professional, personal and social advantages to being bilingual. Research has shown that bilinguals experience an advantage when performing cognitive tasks involving attention, inhibition, monitoring, and switching focus of attention (Bialystok 2001). Wohoo! It helps their attention! Genesee (2009:2) refers to these cognitive skills as ‘executive control processes’ and describes how they function,

“Executive control processes permit the problem solver to focus attention when there is potentially conflicting information to be considered, to select    relevant over irrelevant information, and to switch strategies when a solution is not forthcoming.”. Who would not want this for their child?

I know it seems obvious. Some professionals actually advise people with TYPICALLY developing children to avoid exposing them to a second language! But it's not. You can teach your son Mandarin. If you read the literature that is out there, there are only positive outcomes for people who are fortunate enough to have a bilingual parent. I wish you all the best.  


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Valerie Herskowitz


I am an autism expert and speech pathologist (for over 30 years). I am also the parent of a child with autism. I can answer any question on autism dealing with communication, education, behavior and diet. I cannot answer questions that are medical in nature or are dealing with medications.


I have ran a therapy center for individuals with autism until 2008. I lecture all over the country. I am a writer on the subject of autism. I also teach classes on autism on line to students and other speech pathologists.

President-elect: Florida Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists Member American Speech and Hearing Association, MembernAutism Society of America, President of the National Autism Registry, Vice President of the Association for Developmentally Disabled Adults and Adolescents.

I am the author of: Always Leave Them Laughing: The Future of Our Children with Developmental Disabilities Must Be Addressed Available from Amazon: Available from Smashwords: Autism and Computers: Maximizing Independence Through Technology Available from Amazon: Contributor to: Cutting Edges in Autism Therapy 2010, 2011, 2012 Autism Society of America's national publication (September 2008). Advance Magazine, South Florida Parenting, Spectrum Magazine,

I have a masters degree in speech pathology

Awards and Honors
I won a Stevie Award in 2004: Lifetime Achievement Award for my work with individuals with autism. My therapy center won, Judge's Choice Award Best Center in South Florida by South Florida Parenting magazine 2005.

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