For a long time there has been an accepted myth that children with autism must only speak one language so as not to make verbal communication even more confusing. It is understood that children with ASD have difficulty with communication, but when did people start thinking that more than one language could limit their overall capacity for speech? The truth is, no one knows.
For a long time, pediatricians, educators, and speech therapists thought that by focusing on one language, a child would have an easier time communicating, even if his home environment was multilingual. However, it seems entirely more possible that children with autism are even more alienated by their family trying to talk to them in the common language of their community (i.e. English), which is commonly not their native language (i.e. Chinese) and makes for a deep language gap and an even deeper gap in intimacy.
While there is no data to support that learning more than one language is harmful to an autistic child’s development, a handful of studies show that children with autism can learn two languages just as well as one language and may even thrive in multilingual environments. As far as we know, any kind of language is beneficial to children with autism as any learned communication seems to beget more communication. For example, there have been many studies on teaching babies sign language and how these children seem to learn to communicate faster and with more fluency than babies who are not taught sign language.
From what scientists can tell, learning a second and third language hones critical thinking as well as attention, self-control, and mental flexibility and there’s no reason that these skills would entirely elude children with ASD who were in a multilingual environment. Scientists believe that there’s a very possible overlap between areas where children with autism struggle and the areas of the brain that are helped by bilingual exposure.
As it is now, it seems that more tests are needed, as always, to uncover the possibility of multilingual benefits on children with autism. In addition, the standard tools for evaluating a child’s social and communication skills are in English and it is possible that these limit the accuracy of results for multilingual participants; whereas reading a picture book in a child’s native language may be a better assessor of communication skills.
We must all remember how very important love is in the struggle with autism and how intimacy and connection must be maintained. Anything that gets in the way of that is not really going to benefit the child in the long run and unnecessary language barriers are no exception.