Bilingualism in children with autism spectrum disorder: Bilingual development and advantages on executive and adaptive functioning

  • Author / Creator
    Labonté, Chantal
  • Many children, including those on the autism spectrum, need to communicate in two or more languages to participate fully in their lives and communities. Despite bilingualism being a worldwide phenomenon, bilingual development in autistic children is a relatively new area of study, with a limited and growing body of literature emerging within the past ten years. It is well established that learning two languages does not disadvantage the development of non-autistic children, with some evidence suggesting bilingualism confers an advantage in executive functioning (EF) skills. Despite a possible bilingual advantage, some parents of autistic children receive recommendations against exposure to a bilingual language environment. This recommendation is not supported by available research, which suggests no detrimental effects of exposure to bilingualism for children with autism. Parents themselves may also express apprehension towards bilingualism for their autistic child. The decision to restrict a child’s language environment may have significant implications for the child and their family. The study of the intersection of bilingualism and autism is complicated by the diversity and heterogeneity inherent to both bilingualism and autism. Current research primarily investigates bilingualism as a two-category construct (i.e., monolingual vs. bilingual). Bilingual language profiles can be further defined and understood by individual differences in age of acquisition, exposure, proficiency level, language use and bilingual environment, among other factors. Additionally, autism includes a heterogeneity of skills, talents and abilities.
    Building on prior research, this dissertation presents two studies exploring the relationship between bilingualism and autism while addressing the inherent complexities in both. Recognizing the relative dearth of research examining the complexity of bilingualism in autism, the first study examines the bilingual language development of children with autism in the context of their language exposure using a mixed-methods case study design. Relying on parent-report measures and semi-structured interviews, I examine the complexity of bilingual language development for autistic children in the context of their home and school language exposure among a sample of 25 children with autism. The role of bilingualism within a family requires particular attention as the home environment, and family values contribute to the use of bilingualism in daily life. The second study examines the bilingual advantage in parent-reported executive functioning (EF) and adaptive functioning among a sample of 121 autistic children and non-autistic children. Children within the sample were exposed to various language conditions, including simultaneous bilingualism, sequential bilingualism and functional monolingualism. Using a continuous approach, multiple regression analyses were used to explore the predictive relationship between individual bilingual variables (e.g., age of acquisition, exposure to a second language, parent-reported proficiency) and EF and adaptive skills. The results of both studies suggest that autistic children have diverse bilingual experiences. Bilingualism does not contribute any disadvantage to the development of bilingual autistic children. Parents report positive attitudes toward bilingualism, receive a mix of recommendations regarding bilingualism for their autistic children and make decisions about language exposure that are congruent with their beliefs. Taken together, the two studies contributed to the limited and growing body of evidence that counters recommendations against bilingualism for children with autism. An understanding of bilingual development has important implications for supporting bilingual families raising autistic children.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2022
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Library with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.