Raising Bilingual Kids & Little Global Citizens

Language Development

Bilingual Children with Autism, Downs Syndrome and other Developmental Delays


Last Updated on December 18, 2023 by Bilingual Kidspot

Can children with a developmental delay become bilingual?

In bilingual households, parents with a child with a developmental delay such as Autism or Downs Syndrome, are often faced with questions regarding their child’s ability to become bilingual.

Many, discouraged because of the fact their child already has a development delay, think that it won’t be possible, or that they will be putting extra pressure on their child to speak another language.

Following on from her first post : Bilingual Children and Language Development, which gives a great overview of childrens’ language development and their ability to become bilingual,  Mary-Pat O’Malley, Speech and Language Therapist, gives expert tips and advice on the questions most asked about when raising bilingual children with Autism, Downs Syndrome, and other developmental delays.

Hi I’m Mary-Pat, lecturer, researcher, author, and creator of Talk Nua.  I am here to answer the following questions:

  • What if my child has a speech and/or language problem?
  • What if they have Autism or Down Syndrome?
  • Won’t being bilingual with a developmental delay make things worse?
  • Wouldn’t it be better to stick to just one language?

Bilingual Kids With Developmental Delays

If you’re a parent of a child with Autism, Down syndrome or any other developmental delay, and you’re raising them bilingually, it’s highly likely that somewhere along the way, you’ve been told to drop a language and only focus on one.

Because after all, one is hard and two are harder right?


For bilingual children with developmental problems, Kathryn Kohnert, a well-respected researcher in the area says:

“One language is hard and two languages are hard. For bilingual children with a language problem, the underlying impairment will manifest in all languages

This is most likely because the problem is due to some underlying inefficiency in processing language input.

Therefore, all languages are affected. And skills tend to be distributed across the languages, which is why it is important to assess all the languages.

In this post, I’m using the term bilingualism broadly to mean children who understand and/or use two languages in spoken, sign, or written form, regardless of the age at which they learned the languages (based on an Australian International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech).

Children with developmental disabilities can and do become bilingual.

There isn’t a lot of research, but there is enough to prove that if your child needs to be bilingual and has a developmental delay, they can still be bilingual. It’s all about what they need the languages for.

Dropping a language can actually turn an impairment into a handicap; limiting your child’s participation in a range of contexts and negatively affecting their social, emotional, and educational progress.

I like François Grosjean’s emphasis the regular use of 2 or more languageswhat is important is language use rather than proficiency.

Bilingual children with a developmental delay, and those with diagnoses of Autism or Down syndrome need and use two languages or more in their everyday lives.

Bilingual children with a developmental delay may never completely acquire any language. However they still need to use two or more languages to function effectively and fully in their day to day lives according to Kay Raining-Bird and colleagues in a recent review of the topic.

It may also be important to remind your Health Care Professional HCPs that bilingualism is often a necessity, sometimes a choice, and in countries such as Canada where there are 2 official languages, also a right.

If you run in to trouble with HCPs giving you the wrong advice, here are some effective tips for handling the situation.

Research on Bilingual Children with Autism and Downs Syndrome

Uljarević and colleagues

Hot off the press from Australia and the UK is a review of 50 research studies by Uljarević and colleagues.

This study revealed that there is little evidence to support the unfortunate but widely-held view that bilingual exposure is harmful to the language or social development of children who live with developmental differences.

On the contrary, when it came to studies of bilingual children with Autism, they found a positive effect on communication and social functioning.

One limitation is the available pool of studies to review is small and the number of robust studies is also small so further research is needed.

Sharynne McLeod and colleagues’ 2015

Also hot off the press in Australia is Sharynne McLeod and colleagues’ 2015 study of over 3000 children. This study found that at ages 4-5 multilingual children with speech and language concern did equally well or better than English only children (with or without speech and language concern) on school readiness tests.

They did perform more poorly on measures of English vocabulary and behaviour. However, at ages 6-7 and 7-8 the early gap between English only and bilingual children had closed.

Speaking a language other than English at 4-5 years did not in itself, affect children’s academic outcomes at school.

Tthere was no evidence that bilingualism + concern about speech and language resulted in any kind of double delay in academic or behavioural outcomes.

Basically, if there were concerns at age 4-5 (whether the child was English only or multilingual), this was the important thing as these children went on to have issues with literacy and mathematical thinking.

But children who had typical speech and language development at 4-5 irrespective of being English only or multilingual, did not show evidence of problems later on.

Ohashi and colleagues in 2012

Next up is Canada where Ohashi and colleagues in 2012 compared a group of recently diagnosed bilingual-exposed children with autism aged 24-52 months with a matched group of monolingual-exposed children with autism.

No statistically significant differences between the two groups on any language measure were observed.

Language measures included understanding of language, spoken language, age of first words and phrases, and functional communication.

Their results suggest that a bilingual language environment does not disadvantage young children with autism in the early stages of language development.

Petersen and colleagues in 2012

Petersen and colleagues in 2012 (also in Canada) looked at diversity of vocabulary in English-Chinese bilingual and monolingual children with Austism looking at word comprehension and production.

When compared with monolingual children with Autism there were no significant differences in production vocabulary size or vocabulary comprehension scores.

They conclude that their results provide evidence that bilingual English-Chinese preschool children have the capacity to function successfully as bilinguals.

Hambly and Frombonne in 2012

Finally from Canada we have Hambly and Frombonne in 2012 who looked at the impact of bilingual environments on language and development in preschool children with Autism.

It was found that bilingually exposed children with Autism did not experience additional delays in language development.

So what does it all mean?

The available research indicates that children with speech & language problems and those who have autism, Down Syndrome, cochlear implants, or Foetal Alcohol Syndrome can and do learn two languages or more given sufficient and enriched opportunities in each language.

Once again though, this fact is not yet part of mainstream thinking.

The important thing is the high quality language input and social input i.e. opportunities to use their languages.

Children from minority language families should be encouraged to continue to speak the home language. Recent research from Canada by Marinova-Todd and Mirenda this year, in relation to children with autism advocates the following:

The specific strengths and weaknesses, learning environments, cultural preferences and family dynamics that affect children with Autism and their families should be taken into consideration when specific language interventions are designed.

They also report that research does not support the practice of language intervention in only one language which is usually the language of the SLP.

Bilingual children with speech and language challenges and developmental differences need bilingual intervention in order to help them achieve their potential and participate fully in society.

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bilingual children with autism, downs syndrome, and other developmental delays
 -Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Fred Genesee and Ludo Verhoeven (2016) Bilingualism in children with developmental disorders: a narrative review. Journal of Communication Disorders
 -Sharynne McLeod, Linda J. Harrison, Chrystal Whiteford and Sue Walker (2015). Multilingualism and speech-language competence in early childhood: impact on academic and social-emotional outcomes. Early Childhood research Quarterly 34:53-66
 -Mirko Uljarević, Napoleon Katsos, Kristelle Hudry, and Jenny Gibson (2016). Practitioner Review: multilingualism and neurodevelopmental disorders- an overview of recent research and discussion of clinical implications. Jouranl of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
 -Elizabeth Kay Raining Bird, Erin Lamond, and Jeanette Holden (2012) Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorders. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 47(1):52-64.
 -Jill M. Petersen, Stefka H. Marinova-Todd and Pat Mirenda (2012) Brief report: An exploratory study of lexical skills in bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42: 1499-1503.
Kaori Ohashi, Pat Mirenda, Stefka Marinova-Todd, Catherine Hambly, Eric Fombonne, Peter Szatmari, Susan Bryson, Wendy Roberts, Isabel Smith, Tracy Vaillancourt, Joanne Volden, Charlotte Waddell, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Stelios Georgiades, Eric Duku, Ann Thompson, the Pathways in ASD Study Team (2012) Comparing early language development in monolingual-and bilingual-exposed young children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism spectrum disorders 890-897.
-Catharine Hambly and Eric Fombonne (2012) The impact of bilingual environments on language development in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder  42: 1342-1352.
 -Stefka Marinova-Todd & Pat Mirenda (2016). Language and communication abilities of bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders in Multilingual Perspectives on Child Language Disorders. 

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