For Children with Autism, Multiple Languages May Be a Boon

Oscar, now 7, was born in California a few years after his family emigrated from China. At the time, the other members of his household, like more than 24 million other children and adults in the United States, spoke little English at home. But when Oscar was diagnosed with autism at age 2, pediatricians, speech therapists, neighbors and friends all advised his family to pick a single language to communicate with him. And that language, they all agreed, should be English. English is the ticket to success in school, Oscar’s teachers said. A prerequisite to participating in state-funded therapies, his therapists said. The predominant language of Oscar’s suburban neighborhood and of the children who play there, his neighbors said. By the time Oscar turned 3, his family had committed to interacting with him only in English. Yet they sometimes seemed to be at a loss when trying to communicate with him. “There were things that the family didn’t know how to say very smoothly or at all in English, so they had to talk around the issue or just drop it,” Yu says. The better scenario would have been to speak to Oscar in Chinese and let him learn English from the outside world, says Johanne Paradis, professor of linguistics at the University of Alberta in Canada. Retaining strong cultural and family ties will only help parents connect with their children later on, she says. “It’s easy to say when a child is diagnosed with autism at age 3 that the family should switch to English at home,” Paradis says. “But when that child is 12, they’re going to have more complex ideas to express and the parent won’t be able to talk with them freely.”

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