For children with autism, multiple languages may be a boon
Oscar, 6, sits at the family dinner table and endures the loneliest hour of his day. The room bustles with activity: Oscar’s sister passes plates and doles out broccoli florets. His father and uncle exchange playful banter. Oscar’s mother emerges from the kitchen carrying a platter of carved meat; a cousin pulls up an empty chair.
“Chi fan le!” shouts Oscar’s older sister, in Mandarin Chinese. Time for dinner!
“Hao,” her grandfather responds from the other room. Okay.
Family members tell stories and rehash the day, all in animated Chinese. But when they turn to Oscar, who has autism, they speak in English.
“Eat rice,” Oscar’s father says. “Sit nice.”
Except there is no rice on the table. In Chinese, ‘eat rice’ can refer to any meal, but its meaning is lost in translation.
Pediatricians, educators and speech therapists have long advised multilingual families to speak one language — the predominant one where they live — to children with autism or other developmental delays. The reasoning is simple: These children often struggle to learn language, so they’re better off focusing on a single one.
However, there are no data to support this notion. In fact, a handful of studies show that children with autism can learn two languages as well as they learn one, and might even thrive in multilingual environments.