Eight families indicated that they had opted for a more multilingual approach to raising their child on the autism spectrum, while six families reported opting for a more monolingual approach (i.e. using mainly English). Three out of the four families interviewed in Wales opted to maintain Welsh, while five out of ten families in England opted to maintain the home language. Three broad themes were extracted from the data, which are presented in Table 2, along with their sub-themes. The superordinate themes were: (a) parental perceptions about the value of bilingualism, (b) factors influencing language decisions, (c) consequences of language choices.
Each of these three superordinate themes and their concomitant sub-themes will be considered from the perspectives of families in two distinct groups outlined in Table 3: parents who opted for a more multilingual approach (group 1) and those who chose a more monolingual approach (group 2).
THEME A: Parental Perceptions About the Value of Bilingualism
Parents reached a consensus that bilingualism was valuable for typically-developing children, however their perceptions diverged when it came to the value of bilingualism for children on the autism spectrum.
Impact on communication
Parents from group 1 commented on the potential communicative advantages of bilingualism for children on the autism spectrum. When referring to her son’s dual language use, Julie suggested that:
It’s made him have to gauge somebody else’s preferences before he opens his mouth, he’s making those judgements; “do I speak to them in English or Welsh?” So that’s really important, especially when you know, this sort of stereotype of information about autism.
Similarly, Eleanora gave a practical example of how her son distinguishes between languages according to the interlocutor:
He would know to speak English at nursery but he would know that my mother-in-law only speaks Italian, so he would use the language in context, connected to what person he was speaking to.
Magdalena, who opted for a more monolingual approach, also notes a social advantage of bilingualism for her son, namely that having Spanish as well as English offers him another means of communication, and therefore increases his opportunities for social interaction.
Regardless of their ultimate language choices, both groups noted how bilingualism is an intrinsic part of their child’s cultural identity. While Molly commented that she wants her children ‘to be proud of where they’re from’, Baheela’s repetition of ‘our own language’ stressed her sense of ownership of, and identification with, Punjabi:
We mostly use our own language, not the English, we tend to speak Punjabi, our own language.
Nabani raises the potential tension faced by multilingual families with children on the autism spectrum, namely how to maintain their child’s cultural heritage while supporting their linguistic and communicative development (often in the dominant language):
We don’t want to lose their culture. That is kind of like the conflict there. I don’t want him to just speak English because I want him to explore other languages where his roots are and when we do go back to our country I want him to be able to speak in our language as well, where he can communicate confidently.
Impact on Cognition
With regard to advantages specific to autism, four parents suggested that being bilingual may offer benefits for their child’s cognition. Roberta described each language as a ‘whole universe’ and suggested that code-switching may increase her child’s cognitive flexibility:
One of the issues with autistic kids is, you know, that they can find it difficult to be flexible in situations, so the fact that he has to switch codes, so with the codes comes a whole universe almost, I think that actually is a good way of practising, you know, flexibility.
In a similar vein, Eleanora highlighted the fact that she had read that bilingual children tended to show advantages in isolating noise and thus hypothesised:
I don’t know whether autistic children need encouragement in that but…I think it might help him later on…like in a big, noisy secondary school, that might help him with isolating, blocking out the noise.
Anna suggested that the increased challenge of switching between languages may encourage her son Dean to ‘keep his mind busy’ and avoid distraction. Only Katherine discussed the possible protective effect of bilingualism on autism, but did not suggest that her decision to raise her son bilingually was based on such a connection.
I think it’s an interesting concept that somebody who is bilingual and has autism, there may be benefits for the autism, in terms of the cognitive flexibility and that kind of thing, but I don’t know whether… that would just be my hunch.
However, some parents expressed apprehension that their children were becoming confused by the presence of two languages:
We thought it’s confusing, he’s getting confused. Which one to pick up. And obviously he stopped and he’s not like other neurotypical children that we see, so better to focus on one. (Hira).
Sometimes he can kind of get mixed up as well, because there’s so much learning in his mind. (Nabani).
Dasia, who at the time of the interview had a grown-up son and daughter, both on the autism spectrum, expressed regrets about raising her children monolingually, but nevertheless commented that her son may have found two languages difficult:
It’s hard to know because there still would have been limitations because of his autism, I don’t know how far he would have gone because of the abstract side of languages, let’s say, the grammar.
Similarly, Magdalena reflected on her own experiences as a language learner and concluded that her son could become distressed when surrounded by the Spanish language, which she describes as an ‘overloading’ experience:
You’re thinking “oh what are they talking about?” and that makes him spiral, you can see he is then overloading because he’s concentrating so much.
THEME B: Factors Influencing Language Decisions
Language choices were complex for all families in this study. Rather than basing their decisions about language maintenance on their perceptions about bilingualism alone, parents discussed several other key factors in their decision-making, namely: communication with family, advice received, the impact of their child’s autistic presentation on their language development, and the importance of English.
Communication with Family
Being able to communicate with family members emerged as the most significant factor for parents choosing to raise their children bilingually. Baheela and Lena comment that bilingualism is a pre-requisite for relationships with extended family members:
When she grows up she’ll be able to speak it and communicate with our parents. (Baheela).
All family is in Poland, you know. He’s going on holiday and he’s going to speak Polish. (Lena).
Two parents who had opted for a more monolingual approach also conceded that bilingualism would aid communication with family outside the UK. Nabani comments that her son ‘would speak Gujarati because all my in-laws are back in Punjab, so when we actually go and visit them he does understand them’. This raises the important distinction between expressive and receptive language for children on the autism spectrum; Nabani had decided that her child understanding the language was perhaps more realistic than him speaking it. For William, Magdalena’s son, speaking Spanish is vital for his relationship with his father, who lives in a Spanish-speaking country. She reports, ‘he has to see his Papá, so it’ll make his life a hell of a lot easier if he can communicate 100%’.
Parents from both groups often based their language choices on what was natural for their family as a whole:
It’s not really based on a theory even though there are theories to say that’s what you should do, it’s just what comes naturally. (Roberta).
But with my children—I never noticed actually—but they understand Hindi and they can speak Hindi, so it’s mostly Hindi because it comes naturally to us at home. (Chandra).
For some families, making a distinct choice between monolingualism and bilingualism was not necessary as their children were diagnosed at age 5 or older and were already bilingual. Nevertheless, Eleanora expressed frustration at the advice she received to speak more English in the home, and provides an important insight into how autism may be missed if practitioners suspect that language delays or limited social interaction are the result of bilingual exposure:
He was in a nursery before and all they were saying was “Oh he just sits by himself and doesn’t talk to anyone, you should speak more English to him at home”. And we were like, “we do. He watches TV in English all the time, our friends don’t speak Italian, he speaks English with them. He’s just not talking to you”.
Parents’ own English proficiency also played a role in language decisions. While the two mothers interviewed with an interpreter were both able to speak some English, it was much easier for them to communicate with their child in their own language, which no doubt played a central role in their language choices.
Another key factor in parents’ decision-making was the advice received from practitioners and other family members about bilingualism. Four families (all from group 2) were advised by professionals around the time of diagnosis that one language may be more appropriate for their child:
We were advised to stick to one language because sometimes it can be very confusing jumping from one language to another, and just to keep that consistency as well. (Nabani).
Unfortunately, also we were told at the time when he was diagnosed with autism that it would be best if I spoke one language. (Dasia).
While Nabani intimates that she agrees with the advice, Dasia’s use of ‘unfortunately’ suggests that in hindsight she believes this to be unhelpful advice. Roberta, who chose to raise her son bilingually, said there were family members who were concerned ‘that it would be very confusing if I spoke Italian to the kid and would he be able to speak English?’. Seven families (five from group 1, two from group 2) were given no advice about whether bilingualism would be possible for their child when they were diagnosed with autism, while two parents were advised by practitioners to continue raising their child bilingually. Eleanora describes this process: ‘we did ask the health visitor when he was little and he just said, “No speak both languages and he’ll be fine”, and that’s what we did and his first words were a mixture, some in English, some in Italian’.
Feasibility of Bilingualism
Many parents from both groups suggested that their language decisions were based on how feasible bilingualism was for their child. First, parents from group 1 discussed the possibility of their child maintaining both languages. Anna, Katherine and Eleanora commented that children who are deemed to have ‘high-functioning’ autism would be better placed to manage two languages:
If they were like the same ability as Dean, obviously he’s high functioning, I think it’s good for him because his brain is so busy anyway that he can absorb everything. (Anna).
If they had a child like Jamie who was high functioning I would definitely push for it, if the child was non-verbal then it’s tricky isn’t it? (Katherine).
Of course it depends on the type of autism, if it’s high-functioning, that doesn’t sort of come into any of the difficulty. (Eleanora).
Further, Katherine suggested that it is the child’s ability to communicate their basic needs that should ultimately determine whether bilingualism is a possibility:
We’ve been fortunate that for Jamie being bilingual hasn’t had an impact on his ability to communicate his basic needs whereas if he was having difficulties communicating his basic needs then probably we would have gone with just one language.
Conversely, some parents felt that the severity of their own child’s autistic symptoms—that is the extent of their communicative difficulties—rendered bilingualism unfeasible. After seeing her son distressed by her code-switching, Hira opted for a monolingual approach:
Slowly I started working with him at mix-matching and he used to cry and then I said, “it’s fine” and I used to let him cry. “OK, you’re crying, it’s fine” ….and we decided just one language.
Others from group 2 recognised that bilingualism was tenable for some children on the autism spectrum, even if it was not suitable for their own child.
My situation would be that… it’s hard for him. You know and I personally would say don’t push it, but then another kid might be totally different, cos it’s such a spectrum, isn’t it. (Molly).
It's the severity of the spectrum, where you are on the spectrum, how it affects the language. (Magdalena).
The Role of English
In certain cases, parents felt that bilingualism was not an achievable goal, concluding that priority should be given to the child’s acquisition of spoken and written English. Davesh, for instance, believed that English should remain the priority for his son. He viewed other languages, including his own native language, as optional:
For me, I prefer him to master English properly in terms of understanding.[…] Basically, because that’s gonna be his primary language for communication. Beyond that, if he wants to learn, I mean I think it’s optional, I think we’d like him to learn Bengali and Arabic.
Similarly, Molly highlighted the importance of English for her son, which was central to her decision to move him from a Welsh-medium school to an English-medium setting:
I feel that if he doesn’t have the English sooner rather than later I might have disadvantaged him.
By contrast, most of the parents in Wales, who were predominantly English-speakers with Welsh-speaking partners, expressed a desire to have been brought up bilingually themselves. This positive view of bilingualism, which was more foregrounded in the experiences of families in Wales than those in England, may have been an important factor in making language choices.
THEME C: Consequences of Language Choices
Changes Over Time
While group 1 opted for a more multilingual approach and group 2 a more monolingual one, it is important to note that these are not dichotomous positions and language practices are, by nature, flexible and in a constant state of flux. As such, discussion of the consequences of parental language choices must be prefaced by the fact that the children in this sample were different ages and this data represents only one point in time; their exposure to different languages inevitably change over time. While Dasia was reflecting back on her children’s development in retrospect, for most of the families, issues of language choices were very much ongoing. This idea of language exposure fluctuating over time is exemplified by Mary’s comment to Anna:
You went through a stage where you thought “right, OK, it’s gonna be better if he just learns one language that we can teach him at home, you know, we can do everything”. But it seems to be working itself out now.
This notion of it ‘working itself out’ was a common thread among parents who opted for a more multilingual approach to raising their child; no parent claimed that it was an easy option, but as the findings of this study demonstrate, many believed their children were now reaping the benefits of being raised bilingually.
Similarly, some families with younger children who had initially opted for a more monolingual approach did not view their decision as fixed. Hira discussed the possibility of introducing Bengali to her son later on, saying ‘when it [English] is built up maybe we can introduce some other things’. Molly commented that although her son would move to an English-medium school from a Welsh-medium one, he would still have some exposure to Welsh. For parents of children with atypical cognitive development, making firm decisions about language maintenance is even more problematic as their developmental trajectories may be more variable or unpredictable than their typically-developing peers. However, one family who had opted for a more multilingual approach discussed their initial concerns.
Roberta discussed the importance of parental well-being and identity when raising a child on the spectrum, advising:
Absolutely speak to your child in your own language. No question about it. Because you know it can only do good, there is no way it can be bad for the kid. And certainly good for you the parent. Because in everything, you know, I don’t like to be this martyr to my child’s autism. So it’s like, obviously I would do anything but you know let’s not lose myself.
This notion of ‘let’s not lose myself’ underscores the emotional impact of language maintenance in autism not only on children but on parents too. Home languages can play a crucial role in the emotional bond between parent and child, which means that language choices may have significant implications for familial well-being. Other parents from group 2 expressed a sense of guilt or frustration for having opted for a more monolingual approach.
When he goes to see his dad, that inability to be able to express himself must be… it fills his bucket, because he can’t release. He can’t get his frustrations out. So yeah, that’s my fault really, but… it’s life. (Magdalena).
I think had he been given the opportunity to learn the language properly, you know, taking into consideration his autism, I think he would have learned another language. (Dasia).
Magdalena’s use of ‘that’s my fault really’ demonstrates how problematic the choice between monolingualism and bilingualism can be, and the weight of responsibility felt by parents. She went on to justify her decision, suggesting:
I thought he needed to catch up… he was so behind… with the English vocabulary-wise, so we just did some English for a good 2 years, and now… you get stuck in a rut don’t you. (Magdalena).
Again, the use of ‘you get stuck in a rut’ represents the feeling expressed by many parents that the demands of daily life can overshadow language choices, particularly given that parenting a child on the autism spectrum can be more stressful than parenting typically-developing children or children with other developmental conditions (Estes et al. 2013). This sense of culpability persists in Dasia’s account too:
She always makes me feel guilty for not having spoken to her in Arabic. Because she’s very interested in the culture. (Dasia).
In this case, Dasia chose to raise her children monolingually due to the severity of her son’s symptoms. However, this option clearly had implications for the linguistic and cultural identity of her daughter, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of eleven and was more verbal than her brother. The consequences of language choices on the wider family, particularly siblings, is also considered by Roshan, who talks about her non-autistic son:
He completely missed out learning it [Turkish]. They have a one-and-a-half-year difference and he was learning fine so everybody forgot about teaching him any language. He sort of picked up here and there English by himself. He completely missed out because we were focused so much on Zehra. (Roshan).
Roshan continued by describing possible judgement by the wider family that her son did not speak Turkish:
So going to Turkey everyone thinks it’s really weird that he doesn’t… they think we did it on purpose not teaching him Turkish.
Parents in Wales had to choose between sending their child to an English-medium or a Welsh-medium school, which had significant consequences for the child’s bilingual development. Molly, for example, was in the process of moving her son to an English-medium school because he was not learning Welsh at the same pace as his peers and therefore could not be assessed in Welsh:
You can’t assess him if he’s not speaking the Welsh and I don’t want to disadvantage him.[…] I just need him to move and I’ll feel more comfortable I think, and it is literally just because of the language barrier.
Anna, whose son was 3 years older than Molly’s, considered the same option for her son but decided it may be too disruptive to change his social setting.
I thought maybe I’ll give him a better chance if he’s in an English school, but then I thought about the social side of it and he wouldn’t have coped with that at all, because all his peers know him and are used to him.
Julie and Katherine both discussed a major challenge for bilingual Welsh-English parents with children with special educational needs; namely, that the lack of Welsh-medium specialist schools means that choosing to raise a child bilingually is not an option in many cases.
We really want him to be educated through the medium of Welsh because we want him to be bilingual and we want him to have all those advantages of being bilingual. But finding a specialist school that will be able to do that is unlikely […].
I think the only thing that is going to be difficult for us, on-going, is whether he is going to be able to stay in a Welsh-speaking school, so in that sense there is not enough Welsh-medium provision for children with additional needs like Jamie. (Katherine).
When we were making that decision about whether to stay in Welsh-medium mainstream or move to specialist education, where it’s such a small pool anyway in specialist education, we weren’t going to find a Welsh-medium specialist school. (Julie).
Only one parent in England mentioned language use at school, which indicates a lack of opportunities for children to use their home language at school: ‘most of the time, even the Polish students speak English amongst each other’ (Lena). Lena’s comments reflect Liu and Evan’s findings (2016) that bilingual students tend to prefer to communicate in the dominant language of the school setting, in this case English, and have less positive associations with their home language when at school.