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.

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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.


  1. Hi Dr. Barbera, I am practicing using your method to get verbal mands using the verbal prompt”What do you want?” And then saying the name of object and following up with the question again. It worked like magic with three different 2.5 year old children this week. Thank you!
    I have a question about teaching a child with Autism from a bilingual home first words in English. The research that has been cited to me says that the parents should speak to the child in their first language or the language they use in the home with each other. English will come later when they get to school if they have a firm foundation in first language. I haveseen parents struggle with English themselves. Maybe, like you said, some kids with autism won’t pick up words from conversation they hear at home. What about intraverbal skills you mention in your book? Would teaching a child to finish a phrase work better for bilingual parents in their native language…especially songs and books related to their culture?

    1. I would teach song fill ins in the language the child will learn in preschool and school since song fill ins are almost always first and if a child has no language, teaching two languages from the start I’ve found to be too confusing.

  2. Can you recommend any articles or books about this topic? I teach in a country where two languages are used in school and I’m dying to know more about the research behind this. I’ve found so much about teaching verbal behavior, and so much about children acquiring multiple languages, but I’ve really struggled with learning about the intersection of the two! Thanks.

    1. Doing a simple google search on autism and bilingual will give some results but in my experience these studies are not done with kids with 0 words who need a lot of pairing and repetition. For these kids, focusing on one language has been the best approach!

  3. What do you suggest when the family speaks 3 different languages, but
    not all them speak the same language. For example, I have a kiddo who
    is actually doing really well despite the fact that his grandparents
    do not speak English and only speak Spanish to him. His mom speaks
    English and French and will use both with her kiddo. Our sessions are
    all in English and luckily the grandparents have been more
    understanding and will use English words sometimes, but not always.
    This is something we deal with constantly specially working in Miami
    where it’s so culturally diverse. I honestly think that it’s helped
    that we use PECS with him. What do think?

    1. I agree PECS or sign will be a common language and may help! But we all have to agree what word to use (in what language) as you’re pairing words with sign or PECS throughout the day. As I said in the video, for young, non vocal kids, I think one language (language being the one used by the therapist or at school) is usually the one I’d start with.

  4. I completed my masters research study on using incidental information to teach primary school children in Ireland Irish language vocabulary. The results across participants showed that information was learnt, retained and generalised. The approach was natural and did not affect their use of the English language.
    It is research I must buckle down and try and publish!

  5. Hello, Dr. Barbera,
    Thank you soo much for your motivation, am very inspired. actually had given up on my autistic son, thinking that he may never talk. God bless you because you have shade some light and am now hopeful.
    Kind regards,

  6. Thanks so much for addressing this issue Mary. As an alumn of yours, an autism mom, and half of a Spanish-English couple (I’m Spanish, my husband is British), you might remember I had asked you about this. In my experience, what you suggest – to focus on the “main” language – works best. When our son was diagnosed in 2014 he was only speaking in 2-3 words, mixing both languages. Since we live in the UK, we focused on English only and now he is fully conversational and attending a mainstream school with only 6 hours of specialised support a week. We go to Spain often and he has recently become very interested in Spanish, asking me the meaning of words and echoing/repeating bits he knows are the right thing to say at the appropriate time. Now I’m the one who needs to step up and teach him Spanish as a second language 😉 I didn’t learn English until I was 11… and he is 7, so he’s still ahead of me!

  7. I had to disagree with this blog, because it simply didn’t reflect my family’s experience.

    We are raising our boys bilingually French-English with OPOL in a monolingual English country. François GrosJean at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) advised us to not drop the home language because that would be more traumatic for our son to suddenly not be spoken to in his maternal language. He stressed that we needed to conduct his therapy in both languages to ensure a true bilingual development. The therapists here concurred, and ensured that I was au courant with all the techniques I needed to continue his therapy at home.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. My blogs are for parents and professionals who work with kids with moderate to severe autism who are either not speaking at all or only a little. I’ve found that focusing on one language initially works out best but certainly each family and situation is different. It sounds like your boys are doing well with your approach and I wish you well.

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