More than one in five primary-aged children in England speak English as an additional language (EAL), and around one in seven have a diagnosed special educational need or disability (SEND).
It commonly takes longer to identify special educational needs in EAL students and they are sometimes missed altogether, as the challenges faced by the pupil may be attributed to being new to English. As such, multilingual children with additional needs are often overlooked or under-supported within educational settings.
In the case of autism, multilingual families whose child is on the autism spectrum are frequently advised by professionals to speak one language (almost always English!) rather than the two or more available to them. This advice, although well-intentioned, can have negative consequences for both the child and their family. Not only can adopting a monolingual approach restrict children’s opportunities to interact with family members at home, but it can also preclude them from the myriad benefits of bilingualism. Advice for parents to raise their child exclusively in English may also be misplaced in light of a growing body of evidence suggesting that it is possible, and perhaps even beneficial, for many autistic children to speak and use more than one language.
SEND: Autistic children using more than one language
School staff, therefore. have a key role to play in supporting families to decide whether a monolingual or multilingual approach is suitable at home. Having an awareness of the linguistic profiles of autistic children and the language(s) they have access to at home can support educators in meeting pupils’ needs.
In this vein, recent research from the University of Cambridge suggests that language advice for multilingual families with an autistic child should be given on a case-by-case basis and should be reviewed over time to take into account the child's ongoing linguistic development.
Given that developing as a bilingual may take longer for some, it is essential that autistic children from multilingual families are given sufficient time and support to maintain their home language. Where possible, asking the child directly about the languages they use and would like to use can also be an important step in the decision-making process and can give them agency over – and awareness of – their own language development.
In view of the increasingly common interaction between bilingualism and autism in the classroom, the question arises: how can educators best support bilingual pupils on the autism spectrum?
First, it can be helpful to provide both formal and informal opportunities for social interaction with peers in school as this can support both the linguistic and social development of bilingual children on the autism spectrum, particularly those who are new to English.
Second, for some bilingual children on the autism spectrum, strategies such as providing additional processing time can be particularly useful in increasing engagement and improving educational outcomes. This may be especially true for students who are new to English or who have additional learning needs in conjunction with being autistic. Embedding creative tasks into the literacy curriculum and offering opportunities for bilingual autistic children to express themselves through different mediums, such as art and technology, can also support this group of pupils.
Third and finally, both autism and bilingualism are all too frequently viewed as deficits rather than advantages. It is, therefore, imperative that the strengths and differences of multilingual autistic children are celebrated within the school community.
Dr Katie Howard is senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Exeter