Skip to main content

Brief Report: An Exploratory Study of Lexical Skills in Bilingual Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder


Studying lexical diversity in bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can contribute important information to our understanding of language development in this diverse population. In this exploratory study, lexical comprehension and production and overall language skills were investigated in 14 English–Chinese bilingual and 14 English monolingual preschool-age children with ASD. Results indicated that both groups had equivalent scores on all but one measure of language and vocabulary, including English production vocabulary, conceptual production vocabulary, and vocabulary comprehension. When comparing the two languages of bilingual participants, there were no significant differences in production vocabulary size or vocabulary comprehension scores. The results provide evidence that bilingual English–Chinese preschool-age children with ASD have the capacity to function successfully as bilinguals.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. A minimum of 30 words was selected because it is at about this point in early language development that typically-developing children’s vocabularies begin to include both nouns and verbs rather than nouns only.

  2. When these data were collected, the only available standardized measure of Chinese vocabulary that was equivalent to the English PPVT had been developed and standardized in Taiwan. Together with language development experts who were also native speakers of both Mandarin and Cantonese, we examined every item on the test and assured that it would be appropriate for children speaking Cantonese. On this basis, we deemed it appropriate to rely on standard scores as comparison guidelines for the four Cantonese-speaking participants in our study, but the interpretations should be treated with caution.


  • Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Chawarska, K., Paul, R., Klin, A., Hanninger, S., Dichtel, L., & Volkmar, F. (2007). Parental recognition of developmental problems in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 62–72.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Condouris, K., Meyer, E., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2003). The relationship between standardization measures of language and measures of spontaneous speech in children with autism. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 12, 249–358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, L. M. (1997). Peabody picture vocabulary test (3rd ed.). Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fenson, L., Dale, P. S., Reznick, J. S., Thal, D., Bates, E., Hartung, J. P., et al. (1993). MacArthur communicative development inventory: Users guide and technical manual. San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hambly, C., & Fombonne, E. (2009). The impact of bilingual exposure on the expressive language of children with autism spectrum disorders. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, Chicago, IL.

  • Kay-Raining Bird, E., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., Sutton, A., & Thorpe, A. (2005). The language abilities of bilingual children with Down syndrome. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 14, 187–199.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kohnert, K. (2007). Language disorders in bilingual children and adults. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kremer-Sadlik, T. (2005). To be or not to be bilingual: Autistic children from multilingual families. In J. Cohen, K. T. McAlister, K. Rolstad, & J. MacSwan (Eds.), Proceedings of the 4th international symposium on bilingualism (pp. 1225–1234). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leadbitter, K., Hudry, K., & Temple, K. (2009). Does bilingualism affect language development in young children with autism? Poster session presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, Chicago, IL.

  • Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P. C., & Risi, S. (2001). The autism diagnostic observation schedule. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lu, L., & Liu, H. H. (1994). The Peabody picture vocabulary test–revised. Taipei, Taiwan: Psychological Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Macnamara, J. (1966). Bilingualism and primary education. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mirenda, P., Bopp, K., Smith, V., Kavanagh, P., & Zaidman-Zait, A. (2005). Outcomes of autism early intervention in British Columbia, Canada. In Proceedings of the Autism Society of America annual conference (pp. 25–30). Nashville, TN: Autism Society of America.

  • Mullen, E. (1995). Mullen scales of early learning. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pearson, B. Z., Fernandez, S. C., & Oller, R. E. (1993). Lexical development in bilingual infants and toddlers: Comparison to monolingual norms. Language Learning, 43, 93–120.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rutter, M., Le Couteur, A., & Lord, C. (2003). Autism diagnostic interview (rev. ed. ed.). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schopler, E., Reichler, R. J., & Rochen-Renner, B. (1988). The childhood autism rating scale. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seung, H., Siddiql, S., & Elder, J. H. (2006). Intervention outcomes of a bilingual child with autism. Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology, 14, 53–63.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tardif, T., & Fletcher, P. (2008). User’s guide and manual for the Chinese communicative development inventories (Putonghua and Cantonese). Beijing, China: Peking University Medical Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thordardottir, E. T., Ellis Weismer, S., & Smith, M. E. (1997). Vocabulary learning in bilingual and monolingual clinical intervention. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 13, 215–227.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thordardottir, E., Rothenberg, A., Rivard, M., & Naves, R. (2006). Bilingual assessment: Can overall proficiency be estimated from separate measurement of two languages? Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders, 4, 1–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Valicenti-McDermott, M. D., Schouls, M., Molly, G., Tarshis, N., Seijo, R., & Shulman, L. H. (2008). Language skills in young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Are there differences between monolingual English and bilingual English-Spanish toddlers? Poster presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, London.

  • Zimmerman, I. L., Steiner, V. G., & Pond, R. E. (1992). Preschool language scale (3rd ed.). San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the children, parents, speech-language pathologists, and behaviour consultants who participated in our study, as well as the individuals who contributed assessments, coding assistance, translating, and editorial support: Krista Byers-Heinlein, Jacqueline Chong, Alice Hung, Carolyn Johnson, Cherry Li, Patty Petersen, Clinton Tsang, Susan Yang, and Jing Zhao. We would like to also acknowledge Twila Tardif for providing us with the Chinese Communicative Development Inventories and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stefka H. Marinova-Todd.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Petersen, J.M., Marinova-Todd, S.H. & Mirenda, P. Brief Report: An Exploratory Study of Lexical Skills in Bilingual Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 42, 1499–1503 (2012).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Bilingual
  • ASD
  • Vocabulary
  • CDI
  • Chinese