Home Academia & Research How SLPs Can Foster Bilingual Skills in Students on the Autism Spectrum

How SLPs Can Foster Bilingual Skills in Students on the Autism Spectrum

by Betty Yu
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In a recent online chat, SLP and bilingual researcher Betty Yu shares strategies for encouraging students and families to communicate in their heritage language.

Participant: Is there ever an age or circumstance where you feel it is too late to start exposing a child to their heritage language?

Betty Yu: It’s never too late to start learning one’s heritage language. Just as it’s never too late to learn any additional language. A common occurrence in the U.S. is people start seriously learning (or re-learning) their heritage languages as adults, often in college, once they’re mature enough to understand the benefits. Every family makes decisions about their language use and what they’re going to pass on to their children in different ways, and for very personal reasons.

I would recommend talking with them first to understand their thoughts on the topic. For example, find out why they might have decided not to speak the heritage language in the first place. It might be that they worried that it would harm their children or get in the way of learning English. And you could play a role in offering them the latest knowledge on that.

Participant: Which therapy language would you recommend for a child with apraxia and who is also on the spectrum? Parents speak Arabic but speak to their children only in English.

Yu: There are several things to consider for the language to use in intervention. First, what is the child’s current proficiencies and preferences in his different languages? Second, what are the family members’ proficiencies and preferences? Third, what are the communication goals of the family and what social networks do they want to maintain? What languages will serve those needs? And of course, English is always necessary if they plan to live long-term in the U.S. How does English fit in a way that doesn’t eradicate or devalue the heritage language?

In the case of the child you described, there’s nothing about his diagnoses or developmental stage that would indicate that bilingualism (or even multilingualism) would be problematic. Children with apraxia and on the autism spectrum can, and do, learn more than one language. I would find out the answers to all of the questions above and let those answers guide you, along with hearing the family’s perspective. There is a chapter in the following book that discusses various child and family scenarios and offers recommendations for language use: Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning, Second Edition.

Participant: Do you have suggestions for bridging the “communication gap” between first-generation immigrant parents and their second-generation children? Any ideas on how we as SLPs can facilitate communication at home?

Yu: That’s a situation we see often in the U.S. And an unfortunate situation because the children are losing contact with their base of safety and sources of ethno-linguistic pride. If we think about helping the children and their families to nurture a stronger common meeting ground in terms of language, we have to think big. Why have the heritage languages not been passed on? Are there elements of embarrassment or shame? Have they gotten the message that it’s not good? If so, we would need to work on creating a larger atmosphere of love and pride for the languages.

For the parents, how can they feel a part of the school community (and other local English-speaking communities) and be included in culturally and linguistically responsive ways? Parents from immigrant communities often feel marginalized from mainstream institutions. In terms of facilitating communication at home, we want to be careful to intervene in family dynamics with a high degree of understanding and respect for family-member perspectives. Use family-centered principles of following the family members’ lead to find out what communication activities are meaningful for the family and child that they can cultivate ongoing communication and bonding over.

Participant: How do you get the whole treatment team on board with encouraging use of heritage language?

Yu: I’ve seen a big shift in the thinking of professionals in the last 10 years as the research comes out. Ten years ago, it was the norm for professionals to advise families to stick with one language, but now people are starting to question that more, although it’s still not uncommon to hear the “English-only” advice. Every new person who’s armed with better information will make a difference in informing your colleagues in the world. Also powerful is seeing families who are successfully raising their children on the autism spectrum to be bilingual. The more families are encouraged to do so, the more of them we’ll see moving forward, and they are the most convincing testimony.

Participant: Can you talk a little about the silent period experienced by some children who are learning more than one language?

Yu: The silent period varies greatly across children, whether or not they’re on the autism spectrum. Some children, usually the more outgoing ones, will have no silent period at all. They just start talking the best they can, usually through mimicking or memorized phrases. And some children stay quiet for quite a long time, one or two years sometimes. Unless the child is going through something more complex, like selective mutism (which is an underlying anxiety disorder), then there are many ways to observe their communication in their primary language even if you’re not getting a lot of information from family report.

You can partner with an SLP (or other colleagues) who speaks the child’s primary language. You can arrange play sessions or other activities that encourage communication between the child and other peers from the same language community. Whatever can get the child communicating in his/her primary language so that you can observe and collect a language sample—but no matter what, a language disorder is only present if it exists across all the languages in a child’s repertoire.


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Participant: Is there a difference in the way children with autism acquire a second language compared to their monolingual peers?

Yu: The language acquisition trajectories for children on the autism spectrum vary widely, no matter how many languages they’re trying to learn. Currently, there is no research on the process of second-language acquisition for children on the spectrum. All the studies so far have focused on the outcomes of monolingual children’s language compared to bilinguals.

Participant: In a given session, if the therapist is bilingual, how much time should be used for each language? Or should the focus switch between sessions?

Yu: There are no hard-and-fast rules. Generally, you want to give more time to the dominant language and use that as a scaffold to introduce the second language. Watch the child’s response. The most important thing is that he/she can comprehend what’s being conveyed. Since each child will learn at their own pace, you’ll have to make the determination of what and how much to introduce.

For a child who speaks no English at all, you might want to consider using all, or mostly all, primary language in the beginning. Start introducing English early in a low-stress and fun way (like music or play) where the child might be able to participate easily even if they don’t understand every word. I remember when I was learning English (I didn’t speak English at all when I first came to the U.S. at age 8), I loved playground games because they were very action-oriented and I could join in without much language. Gradually, I picked up more and more in the course of participation and play. That’s the key—participation and being meaningfully immersed.

Participant: Do you have any thoughts on how to structure a child’s AAC device? Would you recommend working with parents to add their heritage language into it or keep it in English?

Yu: By all means, add the home language! AAC systems should contain culturally relevant symbols and messages and have the ability to display and produce multiple languages. One of the benefits of using low-tech aided AAC systems is that symbols can be presented in both English and the home language simultaneously. For example, a picture symbol for water can be labeled with both the Spanish word “agua” as well as the English word “water,” so that the child can learn that the same concept can be expressed in two different ways. Bilingual labeling can also help teachers and parents to support the child in using the same symbols at home and school.

Many concepts across languages do not translate directly, however, so it is also important to develop unique vocabulary sets in each language for use across settings. Finding high-tech AAC systems that can be programmed bilingually may be more challenging, but these systems are becoming increasingly available. As AAC use is being adopted around the world, native-language apps are also starting to be developed. Using target languages to search for AAC apps in online app stores will often retrieve apps that have been developed in specific languages. These two resources provide links to AAC resources in different language options:

Participant: Do you have any specific advice for parents for encouraging heritage language development for a child in a family where one parent is a monolingual English speaker and the other is bilingual?

Yu: Since the child is unlikely to casually hear the heritage language at home, because the parents are not using it with each other, it falls on the bilingual parent to consistently use it with the child. And if it’s not disagreeable to the child, it is also helpful for the parent to insist that the child speak back to him/her in that language. This is the “one-parent-one-language” method.

But it is also important for the child to learn from the ongoing conversations between more capable speakers, so the parents may have to put some effort into finding those environments (such as school, camp, weekend language school, etc.) where the child can be immersed in the heritage language. Otherwise, most of the time, it’s hard for the child to gain a high level of proficiency just by hearing the language from one parent.

Betty Yu, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences at San Francisco State University. She is current president of the Asian Pacific Islander Speech-Language-Hearing Caucus and an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 10, Issues in Higher Education; 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity; and 17, Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders. bettyyu@sfsu.edu

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