Benefits and Challenges of Multilingualism for Autistic Children

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
O. Ozturk1,2, J. L. Gibson2 and N. Katsos2, (1)Speech and Language Therapy, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom, (2)University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Background: Despite the growing prevalence of multilingualism in the world (Grosjean, 2010), there is little research into multilingualism in children with neurodevelopmental disorders (Hampton et al., 2017). Bilingual parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are sometimes advised to keep to a single language, often the majority language of the society (Lim et al., 2018). A handful of studies investigating whether bilingual exposure is associated with additional difficulties for the language development of children with ASD focused on receptive and expressive language (Ohashi et al, 2012), vocabulary (Petersen et al, 2012), structural and pragmatic language competence (Reetzke et al., 2015), and gestures (Valicenti-McDermott et al., 2013). A systematic review by Uljarevic et al. (2016) examined 50 studies and concluded that bilingualism has no negative effects on various aspects of functioning across a range of neurodevelopmental disorders and in the case of ASD, positive effects of bilingualism on communication and social functioning have been observed.

However, previous studies examining bilingualism in autistic children often exclusively relied on parental reports, they often excluded non-verbal children from the sample, and they sometimes did not include a general cognitive assessment of the participants to evaluate their level of general functioning. Crucially, previous studies often measured bilingual children’s skills only in the language that is dominant in their society and do not report the child’s development in the language used at home. This is a substantial gap in our current understanding.

Objectives: In this paper we aimed to address the gaps in previous research by avoiding the shortcomings identified above and critically, by studying children’s linguistic development in all the languages spoken by a child.

Methods: Our study includes parental reports for all languages spoken by a child as well as direct data for English comprehension and production through face-to-face interactions with autistic children in England. Our data collection is still on going. To date, we collected parent-reported data from 39 children (6 females, 18 bilinguals, 5 trilinguals) and direct data from 30 children (3 females, 15 bilinguals, 3 trilinguals) aged 4;4-12;0. Our target is to present direct and parent-reported data from 60 autistic children, approximately half of whom would be bilingual.

Results: Preliminary results show that bilingual children’s combined comprehension and production scores in English are significantly better than monolingual children’s (Mbil=118.11, SD=28.19, Mmono=98.58, SD=18.89, F(1,28)=4.609, p=0.041). Additionally, bilingual children’s production scores were significantly better than monolingual children’s production scores (Mbil=54.50, SD=12.77, Mmono=43.92 SD=19.24, F(1,28)=4.282, p=0.048) in English. Finally, bilingual children also scored significantly higher than the monolinguals in the English comprehension task (Mbil=63.61, SD=6.94, Mmono=54.67, SD=17.72 F(1,28)=4.227, p=0.049). We also present qualitative data on children’s linguistic performance in their second (and third) language(s).

Conclusions: These results provide empirical support for the view that multilingualism does not hamper the linguistic and communicative development in autistic children in the majority language (English). Further analyses will report on home language. This study is likely to offer the most comprehensive profile of language development in bilingual autistic children to date.