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Guest Blog: One Language or Two: The Bilingual Quandry in Autism or Is it? - featured January 7, 2011

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Guest Blog: One Language or Two: The Bilingual Quandry in Autism or Is it?

By: Landria Seals Green, M.A., CCC-SLP
Copyright 2010. Reprinted with the express permission of the author as it appeared on her blog SLC Therapy, P.C.

I appreciate great research, well founded studies with clinically relevant recommendations that can be utilized by therapists and consumers. The topic of Bilingualism as it relates to autism or even relevant research with strong implications for bi or tri language acquisition in people with autism is a subject not well researched. However, the answer of "No, use one language only preferably English" is often communicated to families (typically Spanish speaking families) whose children have a diagnosis of autism.

While I understand the perspective of the well meaning therapist. I must ask, why are we communicating "No use of a second language" without real evidence in practice?

Language is personally relevant as it demonstrates a person's identity from a cultural, socioeconomic, and/or religious perspective. Language is a source of identity. When parents strive to teach a child a language such as Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Swarti, etc. that is typically part of who they are. In fact, these families usually seek to teach these languages first and also add English. When a therapist states that one language should be utilized, it is in fact, asking a family to choose their identity. Is this fair? Is it okay to ask a family to choose a language?

Because this topic is important to my clients, I decided to conduct a review of research so that my recommendations have evidence and not my opinion disguised as fact. The truth is, the spare research made public, is not based in the US primarily. In fact, the research is coming from Canada and other countries. Is this because being bilingual is the norm in other countries in comparision to the US culture that sublimally states that bilingualism or the L2 is an extra language and English is the norm and prmary? Is this fair in a world of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity?

I suspect that my readers may be thinking that these statements are acceptable for typical language development, but autism or atypical language acquisition should have different rules. While this may or may not be true, there is little research in the area of autism and bilingualism. The research that is available has found:
  1. The research that has been conducted is positive in the acquiring Language 1 and Language 2.
  2. Children seem to acquire both and use one or both primarily.

The authors of the research studies separately state that the although autistic, each brain is different in how and what it will acquire. In addition, no research stated the teaching a second language has an adverse effect on progress. I think ineffective therapy masked as effective, unfounded information, and a therapist that does not seek to understand a families dynamic including how a family identifies themselves will have greater adverse impact.

Tasking a family to choose the language form they should communicate with their child is not only unfair but culturally dismissive.

When faced with this language quandry, families should:

  1. Require that their therapy tem provide Evidenced Based Practice and Relevant Research
  2. Request data that shows how their child is progressing in either and both languages
  3. Be allowed to decide and not forced to make the choice
  4. Get therapists that understand them from this language relevance perspective and therapists who will move beyond their comfort zone and seek to learn about the families language and utilize this language in therapy.

In short, families make many many choices. And a diagnosis is heavy regardless of severity. A diagnosis makes people readjust and create new norms on something that is unplanned, can be unpredictable, and not always smile worthy. To add "no to the use of a family identifer" is not the best way to create a buy in to the therapy process.

If my family were fortunate enough to be bilingual and this news was given to us as we are a family of people that has a few sprinkles of people with special needs (an uncle with a severe cognitive impairment, cousin with CP, and a cousin with language learning disability) ...I can just imagine the "kitchen table" conversation...and we would not adhere to the recommendation because our language is relevant to who we are. In fact, we would reduce the impactfulness of the therapist and thereby listen less to future recommendations...especially if this person did not have proof that this was more than an opinion.

We would want our therapist recommendations to meet us where we are and founded in relevant research.

Our Featured Guest Blog/Author: Landria Seals Green, M.A., CCC-SLP

Thanks to Landria for sharing her blog post with us. Please support our contributors and visit SLC Therapy's Blog

Landria Seals Green has professional background in speech-language pathology and applied behavior analysis. Her specialties include: behavior and communication, language, literacy, social communication, speech coordination, and assistive technology-augmentative communication. Mrs. Green has traveled extensively and is an invited speaker throughout the United States providing professional development primarily in the areas of social language, assistive technology, behavior and communication. Mrs. Green began her career as a school based speech-language pathologist in the Stamford Public Schools where she provided services for students with severe medical and cognitive challenges. She has served as an adjunct clinical faculty at universities including Hunter College and Southern Connecticut State University. Landria Seals Green has received numerous awards including the “Someone You Should Know”, Community Award from Peoples Bank, as well as the 2009 recipient of the 40 under 40 award for business professionals in Fairfield County. In addition, she is a member of the Y’ad Byad advisory board and the American Association of Private Practice in Speech Pathology and Audiology. Landria received her Bachelor of Science in Speech and Hearing Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is also a graduate of Northwestern University, where she received her Masters degree in Speech-Language Pathology. She is currently pursing her Board Certification in Applied Behavior Analysis. Landria is passionate about her work as a speech-language pathologist, consultant, and her role as Executive Director. She enjoys spending time at her home in Michigan with her husband and dog Annie.

Tags: Article Autism Newsletter Bilingualism 7 January 2011