Autism and Bilingualism: Our Family’s Journey to Make it Possible

Living life in two languages is a reality for many families today. But what happens if your child has autism or has a language impairment? Is autism and bilingualism possible?

We moved to the United States 4 years ago, just as my daughter was about to turn 3. At that time she spoke only a few words in Spanish.  We put her in a regular, monolingual, preschool and she added some English words to her limited vocabulary.  We didn’t know why she wasn’t speaking but both my husband and I where bilingual and we both knew we wanted our children to be bilingual and ideally multilingual.  When she was diagnosed with autism a few months later and the pediatrician suggested we should only speak to her in English we ignored his recommendations completely and that was the best decision we have ever made about my daughter’s education.

My little girl. Photo by Dee Rico Photography.

My little girl is now 6 and besides autism and sensory processing disorder, she has also been diagnosed with a motor processing disorder, which makes motor planning in general and language is difficult for her.  She is doing grade level work in her 1st grade classroom with supports, accommodations and assistive technology and she speaks English and Spanish.  Her language development is certainly behind that of her peers and sometimes it is hard to understand her in both languages. Both of my children prefer to use English but at home, we all speak Spanish and she not only understands it but is expected, encouraged and motivated to speak only Spanish to communicate at home.

We also explained to her what autism, for this this article from Serenity Kids was very helpful. It was important that she understood that although she has different abilities that doesn’t mean that she can not speak two languages and participate fully in activities both at home and at school. 

I have met so many moms at conferences and speech therapist’s waiting rooms who speak a language other than English at home but followed someone’s advice to speak to their child only in English because that person (many of them therapists, teachers, and doctors) thought that their degree gave them the ability to know what is better for a child without taking into account their culture.  I see many of these parents struggling to communicate with their child in broken English and then turning around and having a conversation between themselves or with a sibling in their home language and it breaks my heart.  These parents were advised to speak only English to their children with autism regardless of the parent’s English proficiency.

Does Teaching Two Languages to a Child with Autism  Negatively Affect his Speech and Development?

A study done in Canada on children with language impairments and how they did in French immersion schools compared to children with no language impairment concluded that “that the [language-impaired] children acquired proficiency in French at no cost to first language development, academic progress, or cognitive skills”. Bruck,M (1982). In another study, Crutcheley et al. (1997) tested bilingual and monolingual children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) on various language tests. They found that bilingual children with Semantic Pragmatic difficulties (SPD) scored the same or better on language tests than monolingual SPD children.

But the real question is: What happens when a child does not speak his home language?  We are lucky, in our family we all speak English fluently, but that is not the case for most immigrant families, for these families speaking two languages is a necessity, not a choice. In many cases taking away a child’s home language means that child’s communication with his family will be limited.  The consequences of this are endless: limited exposure to language, exposure to English that is used incorrectly, a breakdown in the child’s relationship with his parents, siblings and extended family, less opportunities for learning about social  interactions, fewer opportunities to participate in community and family events and the list goes on and on.  A study by Warton et. Al. (2000) reported that immigrant parents who communicated with their children with autism where “more affective and engaging with their children when they used their native language.”  Tamara Kremer-Sadlik of the University of California observed several families of children with high functioning autism  (children who have autism and are verbal) who were advised to use only English when communicating with their children. Most of the families stopped using the home language only when communicating with the child with autism and dinner time observations revealed that the child with autism did not take part in family conversations, parents did not address the child with autism often and English was used seldom.

My Theory

I do not have a degree in medicine or speech-language pathology but I know we made the right decision.  My daughter wants to be included and wants to participate and be treated like everyone else both at home and at school so if everyone in my home speaks Spanish she wants to speak it too.  She will sometimes ask to watch her favorite movies in Spanish instead of English and I have a feeling she does it because she is trying to improve her Spanish.  You see, even though she speaks both languages Spanish is a lot harder for her because Spanish words are longer, sentences have more words and pronunciation of some sounds is harder for her physically both in the complexity of the mouth and tongue movements required and because of the larger amount of motor planning involved in speaking a language that simply requires more sounds to say one word , for example: “necesito” is a longer and more complicated word than “need”.

My little girl loves talking on Skype with her grandparents who live in Guatemala and telling them about her trips to the beach or her day at school.  Being bilingual boosts her self-esteem. Speaking Spanish is part of who she is, it’s part of her identity. She knows that other children at school speak only English and she loves pointing out people who are speaking Spanish when she hears them at the grocery store or the library. My daughter lives in a bilingual world and stripping her of one of the two languages that make up this world would be to rob her of half of her opportunities to communicate, socialize, express herself and learn.

Autism and Research on Bilingualism

Being a passionate advocate for bilingualism I read every research paper and article on bilingualism that I can get my hands on.  I am also an advocate for children with autism and I have written a little on both subjects separately.  And even though I have always know that raising my daughter bilingual was the right choice I am amazed of how much sense it makes when you look at the research on both Autism and bilingualism separately.

Children with autism struggle with social interactions, language and attention and in many cases children with autism are developmentally delayed. Learning two languages from an early age has shown to improve all of these areas.

  • Research has found that bilingual children have better language skills in general even showing more neural activity in the areas related to language,.
  • One study found that bilingual children of Mexican immigrant families had better social-emotional skills than their African-American and Anglo-American peers of similar socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Neurological studies demonstrate that people who are bilingual from an early age can concentrate more easily, are better at multitasking and develop Alzheimer’s and dementia later than people that are monolingual.
  • Different studies in bilingualism have found that language and cognition are interdependent rather than independent issues and proceed through similar mechanisms in response to similar experiences, and with mutual influence on each other, so that better language skills have a direct relation to better cognitive skills.
  • A Study from Goldsmiths University in London suggests that children who know two languages strengthen their cognitive development: “Learning a mathematical concept in Bengali and English, for example, deepens understanding as ideas are transferred between languages.”

Children learning two languages at an early age are exercising some areas of the brain more than children learning only one language.  If you have a weak muscle it makes sense to exercise it to make it stronger, so if a child with Autism has deficiencies in some areas it makes sense to exercise these areas of the brain to make them stronger too.

Learn more about the benefits of bilingualism HERE.

Spread the Word About the Benefits of Bilingualism

Spanish Toolkit for Learning Disabilities

Common Myths About Learning Two Languages at an Early Age

The Importance of Keeping your Culture and Language Alive


Paula Bendfeldt-Diaz

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25 thoughts on “Autism and Bilingualism: Our Family’s Journey to Make it Possible”

  1. Paula, your journey has been an amazing one and Ariane is all the better for it. She is so lucky to have you advocating for her, following your mommy instincts and doing what you know is best for her.
    As a teacher I fully agree with you that speaking to your child in your native language is not only beneficial for them for the future, but beneficial for them right now. In your family you do speak English fluently, but there are many families that don’t, and it is sad to hear that they are being recommended to speak only English, and it must be frustrating for both the parent and the child.
    I am glad you are sharing your experiences and I hope that other families take note. Good luck to you on your journey!

    • Thank you Brandi! All the support from all my wonderful friends makes this possible.

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  3. I also have a child with autism who speaks English and Spanish. The Special Education teachers advised me to stop teaching him Spanish. Of course, I didn’t listen to them. This year, he is studying Latin. He is amazed of how easy it is for him to learn a new language.
    Love your blog!!

  4. I have a 6 year old daughter with Aspergers. My 9 year old son has sensory processing disorder. My son was enrolled in a dual language program from Kindergarten through 2nd grade where he would learn have his day in Spanish and the other half in English. He is now fluent in Spanish and English and my daughter has picked up quite a few words along the way. Since then however, my daughter has been fascinated by other languages and has learned the alphabet in 7 different languages. She knows words in French, Arabic and Russian in addition to the words she already knew in Spanish. Myself, I am monolingual but will fully support both the children’s quest to learn new languages and who knows maybe I will learn some too! Never stand in their way, there is no limit to what they can achieve if given the opportunity!

  5. Thank you for sharing your daughter’s journey with us. As a first generation immigrant and elementary school principal I try to advocate, often against what everyone around me is saying, to provide bilingual education to students with autism. It is the best thing to offer them. We know this from years of brain research.

    • Thanks for your comment Diana and thank you for supporting bilingualism !! I hope that together we can save many families from giving up on teaching their home language to their children just because they have Autism or a speech delay.

  6. My daughter has pddnos and she was nonverbal until age 2 1/2. Ive spoken to her in spanish since she was born. Now shes 3 1/2 and is verbal, like u said english is alot easier to pronounce. She speaks mainly english. I try to have her speak spanish but its hard for her. Some times when i speak to her in spanish she looks at me as if she doesnt undertand so when i translate it to english then she responds. Do you have any recommendations for me. Its also hard for me to find bilingual books and the ones i do find are too babyish.

    • Vanessa consistency is key and the most important thing is making Spanish meaningful for her. I used to feel guilty because I felt like I was making it harder for her but it payed off and she is talking and starting to read in Spanish. She still has a lot of difficulty with articulation and she will always have a harder time speaking in English, Spanish or any other language but she loves speaking Spanish now. You really have to just speak Spanish at home and she will “get it”, it might take longer than it would for another child but if it’s important to you it’s worth the extra effort! You are doing an amazing job! You can find a list of bilingual books on my website and I also do reviews and giveaways of books and other educational materials. Look on under the tab BOOK REVIEWS and also under the tab KIDS and you will find a lot of books for both small children and beginning readers. I also have a post of digital books and apps for Kindle Fire/Android (type Kindle Fire on the search box). I would also recommend educational games on the computer, iPad or Kindle Fire/Android in Spanish. There are many websites but I like We also have CDs in Spanish and I play them every opportunity I get (like in the car). Combining language with traditions also makes it more meaningful and I have found that with children on the autism spectrum motivation is key! My daughter would not “get” the concept of time but is obsessed with movies and shows like Disney on Ice so she would see ads about a show or movie opening that had the date on them and she got the concept of time by counting the days to the opening date of the movie or show she had to watch (needless to say we go to a lot of shows and now I have to hide parenting magazines from her so she won’t see the shows coming up as I can’t take her to everything!!). To motivate my children with Spanish we use music (they loves dancing so we dance to music in Spanish), cooking (we cook traditional dishes and I explain they are from Guatemala and they knows in Guatemala people speak only Spanish), movies they likes (we get versions of movies that have a Spanish option and I will tell her there is no English version). Good luck and keep at it!!

  7. Hola … estoy feliz de haber encontrado este articulo, pues mi hija es autistic y logicamente esta demorada para hablar (habla pero no mucho). My suegra e inclusive la Dra me dijeron que no le hablara mas español por que esto la iba a retrasar mas. Yo deje de hablarle español a mi hija y practicamente le hablo solo en Ingles que porcierto no es muy bueno que digamos. Al encontrar este articulo y la experienza personal de Paula me di cuenta que estava yo estaba en lo correcto de quererle enseñar español a mi hija y de ahora en adelante lo hara com mas razon.

    • Me alegra muchisimo que mi articulo te haya ayudado. Si el Espanol es importante para ti y parte de tu vida familiar hacer el esfuerzo para que tu hija lo aprenda vale la pena. Si necesitas mas articulos o investigaciones al respecto dejame saber y te las envio con mucho gusto! 🙂

  8. Thank you for this article, Paula! I, too, have heard even parents without children with special needs being told to only speak English so as not to “confuse” the child. It drives me crazy!

    And yes, I do know Latino children with Down Syndrome and processing issues who are fluent in both languages. Being bilingual has helped them — not held them back! Kudos to you for bucking the trend and teaching your daughter both languages.

    By the way, your daughter looks just like my daughter — same hair color and all. 🙂

    • Gracias Elisa for your wonderful comment! It really means a lot to me to know that there are many people out there who realize how crazy this misguided idea that children get confused when learning more than one language. How old is your daughter?

  9. I honestly think that many people make their children more handicap than they are. Frankly, speaking a child in two languages can only be beneficial, regardless whether your child has a learning disability or not. I think we are still trying to convince the American people than learning two languages is advantageous, so imagine if the child has a learning process!

    I come from Spain, and parents over there treat their children with disabilities like they would treat a child without them. There are young people with down syndrome over there with bachelors’ degree. I think anything is possible if we put our hearts into it, we have love, perseverance, patients, understanding, goals….you name it.

    Now, I have gone through some major problems myself, and I took care of them naturally. I have learned and understood that diet is very important in a person’s health, that to avoid sugar at all cost is crucial. It is proven how harmful sugar is. I actually saw a difference in my daughter’s attitude when she stopped eating cereal in the morning, and those afternoon snacks that also contain sugar.
    I have read about pranic healing, and energy treatment that takes care of autism. There are actually studies done about this. There is also an exercise, easy to perform, I even do it daily for better memory, that helps autistic children. There has been many studies done about what is called ‘ brain yoga’ . I encourage all mothers to look into pranic healing and following a very strict sugar free diet. If you are interested in learning about how to perform this daily exercise, and the name of the book, I will be happy to share it with all of you.

    My best regards to all, and thank you Paula for this wonderful site.

  10. Very helpful post. I would like an opinion in which language should the therapy be done for an asd child whose language at home is other than english and going to an english nursery.

    • Hi Mihaela. In our case our daughter did therapy in English with the therapist but we did a lot of work at home with her in our home language following the therapist’s directions and recommendations.

  11. Delighted to find you and this site. We also were pressured to make our son monolingual after he was diagnosed as being on the spectrum. He is 8 now, and doing fine in both languages (English and Japanese). As a result of those experiences, I began researching the subject, and am now working with a Japanese group study examining the effects on linguistic and cognistic development of a bilingual environment.

    I wish your daughter and you the best of luck on your journey.


    ps. Here’s a link to some articles about my son’s story:

  12. Hello

    I work in an ASD class in Dublin. As many others capital cities, Dublin is blooming with people around the world. It is incredible how hard is for parents to give up their mother tongue to try to help their son to improve his language skills.

    I would love to hear more about new initiatives of language courses for children in the spectrum or with any other special needs. I am sure a new language, even a few words, will be always beneficial for the kids and the activities in the class, like signing, dancing, reciting, role play, etc, can also be beneficial for learning and practicing social skills.

    At the moment I am preparing a proposal to a language institute to offer a Spanish course. I already told them and the feedback was not so enthusiastic, but I want to fight for this because I think it could be a beautiful class, full of challenge but also full of learning.
    Thank you Paula, it is really great to read about great stories like yours.

    • Thanks so much Dana. We would just love to have a Spanish class for kids with ASD in our area or any Spanish class for that matter. I hope that you are able to make this dream a reality. We have opted for traveling and full immersion, we try to go back to our country: Guatemala as often as possible and this year we spent a few weeks in Spain. In the future I hope to be able to find some Spanish summer programs where we can enroll both of my kids.

  13. Hi Paula,

    What a beautiful story … thanks for sharing it!

    I am a special education professor at a small liberal arts college and this is a topic I’m really interested in researching. So far there is almost no research about bilingual special education services for students with autism. I’m wondering if you know of any bilingual children with autism who have received services in their home language … whether bilingual speech therapy or being enrolled in a dual immersion program etc. I’d love to hear any thoughts that you have.


  14. Question a bilingual student with Autism who has been taught in both languages and speaks both English and Spanish but is still not reading in either …and is now in 3rd grade …his special ed services at school are only offered in English…so at this point would u recommend only teaching him to read in English?


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