International Meeting for Autism Research (May 7 - 9, 2009): Does Bilingualism Affect Language Development in Young Children with Autism?

Does Bilingualism Affect Language Development in Young Children with Autism?

Friday, May 8, 2009
Northwest Hall (Chicago Hilton)
2:30 PM
K. Leadbitter , Psychiatry Research Group, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
K. Hudry , Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, University of London, London, WC1H 0AA, United Kingdom
K. Temple , School of Clinical Medical Sciences, University of Newcastle, Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
.. PACT Consortium , Psychiatry Research, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
Background: In children without developmental disabilities, bilingualism causes few long term difficulties and can bring about linguistic and cognitive benefits (e.g., Peal & Lambert, 1962). However, for children with language impairments, bilingualism in the family may act as an aggravating factor and further delay and complicate language development (e.g., Crutchley, Botting, & Conti-Ramsden, 1997).
Autism often brings about severe delay and deviance in language development. To our knowledge, there have been no medium- or large-scale investigations into the effect of growing up within a bilingual home on the language development of children with autism. Parents often question whether they should use only one language with their child. Anecdotal evidence suggests that clinicians vary in their advice to families on this issue. It seems intuitive that restricting use to one language would maximise the child’s language learning potential. However, this may have negative consequences for some families and may not be a realistic option for others. It may also be the case, particularly for more severely affected children, that bilingualism in the home makes little difference to language development over and above the effect of autism itself. It is also theoretically possible that children with autism, like typically developing children, are able to cope with and benefit from hearing more than one language. 

Objectives: This study explores whether there is any evidence to suggest that growing up in a bilingual home affects the language development of preschool children with autism by comparing matched monolingual and bilingual children on standardised measures of receptive and expressive English language (the language of the country of residence).

Methods: A subsample of children from bilingual homes were identified from the baseline cohort of the Pre-school Autism Communication Trial (total N = 152; All children were aged between 2 and 5 years with ‘core’ autism. These children were individually matched with PACT children from monolingual homes on the following measures: chronological age, gender, autism severity (ADOS score) and socio-economic status. Comprehensive language assessments were made for each child upon entry to the study. These included: Preschool Language Scales (PLS), Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Scales Classroom Edition, and the McArthur Communicative Development Inventory (MCDI). Language assessments therefore came from three sources: parent, researcher and teacher.

Results: Preliminary analyses were performed on data from one of the three trial sites. These suggested that there is very little difference between children from bilingual homes (n = 10) and those from monolingual homes (n = 10) on receptive and expressive language measures (PLS and MCDI scores). The poster will present data from the full sample to show whether these somewhat counter-intuitive preliminary findings are confirmed.

Conclusions: The results are discussed in terms of developmental theory, cultural considerations, and the implications for bilingual families and the professionals that advise and support them. The limitations of this research are highlighted, including the lack of information of competence in the non-English language and the likely confound of diagnostic processes. Wider issues surrounding the complexities of research in this area are raised.

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