Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder

If you think you can’t raise bilingual kids with special needs, think again. Read below about one family who are raising a bilingual child with autism spectrum disorder. They have not given up, and others shouldn’t either.

Our multilingual family

We are a German / English bilingual family. Mummy is German, Daddy is English. Our little daughter (4) and our son (2) have both nationalities.

Both of our children were born in the UK but I was always determined to raise them bilingual because I didn’t want to have a language barrier in my own family. My mum and nan don’t speak English, my mother-in-law doesn’t speak German. So, we knew we had to make it work for their sake.

Our daughter is on the autistic spectrum but we never thought of giving up a language

Our daughter hit most of her milestones at the same age as most other children. However, the older she daughter became; the more I had the feeling she could be on the autistic spectrum.

Many people may wonder why I we continued with both languages however honestly, I never thought about giving up raising her to be bilingual.

Sure, she could understand everything I said in German but replied in English. But this is also a common trait of other bilingual children who are not on the spectrum so that didn’t worry me.

I did a lot of research about bilingualism and autism spectrum disorder. It wasn’t easy to find, but the once I had access, I found that bilingualism doesn’t actually have a negative effect on children with ASD at all. In fact it has quite the opposite effect, it can help to make them better and has a positive impact on their cognitive skills.

Yes, you can raise bilingual children, even if they are on the autistic spectrum. This shouldn’t be a big surprise.

We have some funny moments because of ASD

We do have some funny moments when it comes to language learning, because of the ASD. But not enough to be worried.

For example those on the autistic spectrum can have problems understanding proverbs and things you say but don’t mean literally. They can struggle to understand why you say things but don’t mean it, or they can’t see it. E.g. Its’ raining cats and dogs.

They say what they feel or see without filtering, and can struggle to understand what is appropriate to say and what not.

Because of this, when speaking with my daughter I learned to pay more attention to what and how I say things. I simply to avoid conversations like:

“little Winter flower, you are driving me mad” 
“But mummy, I don’t drive”

She simply doesn’t understand why I would say that. It isn’t a bad thing though, and it definitely takes the annoyance away quite quickly when you try desperately to keep a straight face and not laugh.

In general, we try to avoid proverbs, as they tend to be confusing on a literal basis, but this is a small price to pay.

ASD doesn’t affect her bilingual ability but we do have challenges

It is fantastic to see how our daughter uses German or English depending on her mood and feelings. I use both English or German to talk about certain topics, simply because I feel more confident to use both languages depending on the topic we are discussing.

She also uses German with me when she wants something or wants to convince me to do one of her “great ideas” because she knows that my German is the best out of the family.

She ranks the ability of language skills. Mummy’s German is the best, Oma (Nanny) is ok, even though she is a native German too. My mother is stricter than I am, but for my daughter it means her German is not as good as mine because she gets told off more in German. 

Our daughter sometimes trips over herself when speaking, especially if she has been immersed in a German-speaking environment, and then suddenly is in an English-speaking environment. She sometimes begins to speak before ‘getting stuck’ midway through a sentence – a typical sentence may be:

“Mummy, can we g-can we go t-can-can we erm-Mummy, can we go to the I-I-Ierm-Mummy, can we go to the ice-cream shop please?  This usually only lasts for the first few sentences after switching between the language environments.

A lot of her sentence construction is conjunctive, for example, she will list a lot of things that she wants to take on a journey, or she will explain the order in which certain things will happen:

For example: “Mummy, first we are going to brush our teeth and then go to the toilet and then we go upstairs and then we go into my room and then into my bed and then we are going to read stories and then we are going to go to sleep!”

Firstly, it shows that she can grammatically grasp the construction of understandable – even if childish – sentences. Secondly, it allows her to keep her routine fixed in her head. This helps her to understand why she does certain thins and keeps her calm and happy.

I must think about which language to use

I do need to think about what language I introduce her to certain books or characters, usually depending on what is the original language. One reason is to share our childhood memories, but mostly because once it is introduced in English or German, it has to remain in that particular language.

For example: A well know boy with his 6 pups was first seen in England, so it is English. I turned it on in German and got the response:

“That’s wrong. Are they ill?” 

My answer that we are Germany and that’s why they speak German wasn’t a good enough reason and, after that, we realised some characters have different names. It was sealed – English or nothing.

Even books have to be translated otherwise we just talk about the pictures, but not in German. 

So, before I introduce something, I firstly need to check what languages can I find on Amazon Prime or Netflix and which languages the books are available in. It can be confusing for her if I get it wrong.

The ability to buy DVDs is another consideration, as she finds it hard to understand why certain things are not available on streaming services suddenly without warning.

Even with ASD she understands

My daughter learnt about the differences each country has. For example, English people say “please” and “thank-you” more than Germans do, so she adapts to this without a problem.

Code switching is quite interesting. It shows sometimes how her little head works. If she speaks German and thinks an English world can describe it better, she will use it.

When talking about colours one time, she couldn’t find the right colour in German so used ‘peach’ which was the best description. But we don’t have really a word for peach colour in German. For her, it has to be as accurate as possible.

It’s not always easy, but no bilingual journey is

Honestly, it is not always easy, and I have questioned myself a few times as to why I’m doing this. But it is equally a very rewarding journey and if I had the chance, I would do it all again.

So often, it amazes me to see how confident she is in both languages and how she knows when to use which language to get what she wants, depending on to whom she is speaking.

Yes, our daughter is a bilingual child with autism spectrum disorder, and she is doing fine.

This post is part of our multilingual families series. Click here to read more.

Author: Maria was born and raised in Germany but lived in England for 5 years. She and her British husband are raising their two children to be bilingual. Their daughter has been diagnosed with ASD and bilingualism has been a huge benefit for her.

Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism