What language should you teach to young children with autism in bilingual families?

Many of you have seen my videos of Chino, who I started working with in 2010, when he was just 20-21 months old. He made amazing progress and he is now in early elementary school with little support and he is fully conversational. In fact, he’s bilingual in Spanish and English, as this is what his family speaks.

When I started with Chino when he was just 20 months old, the family had an older child who was just a year or two older than Chino. They had planned to raise their family in a bilingual home, so they were asking me what we should do.

Chino really had only a few pop-out words and very few skills to speak of. I didn’t have a lot of experience back then with how to teach bilingual families and how to select one or more languages, but I was pretty sure that we should stick with English because all of his early intervention providers were speaking English that were coming into the home.

The other important part is that when Chino went to  pre-school and then to elementary school, he would be speaking English. I was pretty sure that we should stick with English, at least in the beginning, and we should pair the words in English. If they wanted to speak in Spanish to their older daughter in full sentences, he wasn’t going to really pick any of that up anyway because we were speaking to Chino in only one or two-word utterances. Instead of saying, “Chino, let’s go up the stairs and brush our teeth and get ready for bed,” in English or Spanish, we would be saying, “Up, up, up,” as we were climbing the stairs. These are the techniques that really improved Chino’s language.

Since starting my online courses in 2015 — which have already served people from 45 different countries, both professionals and parents — there are a lot more families asking questions about how to teach bilingual kids, especially early on. I know that, in general, research supports that kids can learn two or more languages very early on. However, when you have a child with severe language delays and disabilities, and autism, it is different in my experience. My experience is that we need to pick one language. That language, in my opinion, should be the language where they’re going to be taught in school because that is the language that they’re going to have the most exposure to, and you’ll be able to find therapists in that language a little bit easier as well.

For higher language kids, I know we have one member who started with my procedures very early on when I first wrote my book. She lives in Switzerland and there are three languages that her family and community speak. She was on a call a few years ago with me and Dr. Mark Sundberg and she was asking questions about three languages, and told us that her son, who was fully conversational and pretty indistinguishable from his peers, was better at one of the languages, and the other two languages he was a little less competent in. I suggested that she do three different VB-MAPP assessments for the three different languages. Then she would be able to see which areas within each language needed to be caught up.

This has worked well for families, and I do believe that obviously more research is needed, but in the meantime I think for my practice with hundreds of children over the past two decades that I would stick with one language. Then as the child develops language, you can teach him the second or third language hopefully. If they become fully conversational like Chino, they’ll become bilingual at the same time or nearly the same time. I think that will happen more naturally than trying to teach two languages early on. Hope you found this interesting. Leave me a comment on marybarbera.com, and I’ll see you next week.