Bilingualism and Autism: Exploring Parents' Attitudes and Experiences

Saturday, May 14, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
S. Hampton, H. Rabagliati, A. Sorace and S. Fletcher-Watson, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Background:  Autism is associated with language and communication difficulties including delay in language onset in early childhood. Bilingualism likewise is associated with delayed onset of language in typical children. However, bilingualism may also confer advantages in cognitive domains (e.g. theory of mind) as well as facilitating community integration, family coherence and well-being. Thus parents of children with autism are presented with a dilemma when deciding whether to raise their children bilingually, and require an evidence base to inform their decisions. Research into the implications of bilingualism for those with autism, however, is scarce, meaning families and practitioners have little information to assist them in their decision-making. 

Objectives:  This study aimed to explore how bilingual parents in the UK decide on what language practices to adopt for their child with autism, in order to identify community priorities and define specific variables for investigation in future research.

Methods:  Semi-structured interviews concerning the experience of raising a child in a bilingual household were conducted with bilingual parents with a child with autism (n=17), and a matched group of bilingual parents with a typically developing child (n=18). 

Results:  Thematic analysis revealed large areas of overlap between parents of children with and without autism in regard to their decision-making about raising their children bilingually. Factors included child characteristics, family dynamics, and preserving heritage.  However there were also topics raised by parents of children with autism which were specific to this group.  First, parents with a child with autism felt that a bilingual environment would hinder their child’s linguistic development, causing confusion and exacerbating existing language delays – and this concern was related to the language level of the child in complex ways. Second, parents identified a number of ways in which they felt bilingualism could provide social and cognitive benefits, particularly in flexible thinking and communication skills. Third, parents reported a negative influence from professionals who sometimes advised against bilingualism, and referenced the lack of availability of resources for early years support in multiple languages. Finally, the findings also indicated an unanticipated role for bilingualism in providing high quality linguistic and social input for children with autism: parents felt less linguistically restricted when interacting with their child using their native language and further felt that this language facilitated a strong emotional bond with their child.  

Conclusions:  It is essential to build an evidence base to enhance family decision-making in this area. Some influences on the decision-making of parents with a child with autism were shared with parents of typical children but unique concerns were also raised. Our findings point to the importance of considering not just linguistic and cognitive consequences of bilingualism, but also factors such as family coherence and community integration, in future research in this field.