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When bilingualism meets autism: The perspectives and experiences of children, parents and educational practitioners



Change log


Howard, Katie Beatrice 


An increasing number of children on the autism spectrum are from linguistically diverse backgrounds. Despite a growing consensus among researchers that bilingualism is not detrimental to the social and linguistic development of autistic children, multilingual families are frequently advised by professionals to adopt a monolingual approach to raising their child. This multi-perspectival study set out to analyse and shed light on lived experiences of bilingualism in autism within familial and educational settings. Using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) as a methodological framework, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 12 bilingual autistic children aged between 7 and 14 in England and Wales, along with their parents (n=16) and educators (n=13). This thesis contributes a unique qualitative perspective to the nascent body of research investigating the relationship between autism and bilingualism.

Results indicate that while all three groups reported positive attitudes towards multilingualism in theory, many participants were sceptical about its benefits in practice. First, most children in the sample minimised the importance of their home language, despite acknowledging the value of bilingualism more broadly. Second, some educational practitioners raised concerns that bilingualism may impede autistic children’s proficiency in their school’s language of instruction (i.e. English or Welsh). Third, almost half of families opted for a more monolingual approach to raising their child, citing concerns about the severity of their child’s symptoms and advice received by professionals as the primary reasons for their choice. Among the parents who adopted a more multilingual approach, the capacity to communicate with immediate and extended family members was reported as the principal factor driving their language decisions.

The thesis concludes by calling for greater support to be available to multilingual families as they make difficult choices about which, and how many, languages to use with their child on the autism spectrum. Given the possible negative consequences of adopting a monolingual approach, advice to families should be responsive to changes in children’s linguistic, developmental and educational needs, and allow sufficient time for the child to develop as a bilingual. This is particularly important as some parents and educators stressed that, while bilingualism may be more challenging for the child in the short term, it was likely to yield greater benefits – both for the child and their wider family – in the long run.





Katsos, Napoleon


bilingualism, autism, interpretative phenomenological analysis


Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge