Language Barriers or Boosters?

Autism Spectrum Disorder researchers take aim at a multilingualism myth

Betty Yu, Pamela Wolfberg and Summer Hsia

SF State scholars working on breakthroughs in Autism Spectrum Disorder research include Betty Yu, Pamela Wolfberg and Summer Hsia.

There’s a saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects those who have it in such varied, unpredictable ways, the joke implies, it’s impossible to make assumptions about individuals.
Yet there is a big assumption that many people do regularly make about ASD — and SF State professors have set out to challenge it while supporting bilingual families faced with a heartbreaking choice.

Because autism is often marked by speech delays and language acquisition challenges, parents of children on the spectrum are frequently advised to limit themselves to one language in the home. If the family is bilingual, that means that one language — either the “heritage language” of previous generations or the predominant language of the surrounding culture — will have to go.

“Some professionals told us not to speak to our kids in both languages,” says Yuko Yoshino, a Japanese-born mother with a 6-year-old daughter on the spectrum. “But it was hard to just turn off a language, and she grew up hearing both Japanese and English from a very young age.”

“In the future it seems like more people will be speaking multiple languages and communicating with each other. That’s my dream for my son: that a child with autism can have that opportunity, too.”


It’s a scenario that left Yoshino questioning whether her family’s choice would disadvantage her daughter in the long run. It’s not an uncommon dilemma for parents of kids on the spectrum, says SF State researcher Summer Hsia.

“What they hear from specialists or teachers is, ‘Do not confuse your child. Learning is hard enough,’” says Hsia, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Communicative Disorders. “It becomes a really hard decision to make for the parents. The majority of them would like to continue with their home language, but they have to wonder, ‘Am I doing damage to my child’s linguistic development?’”

As Hsia and fellow Associate Professor of Special Education and Communicative Disorders Betty Yu see it, there’s a big problem with the advice these parents are getting: There’s no proof it’s right. Research proved conclusively decades ago that bilingualism doesn’t impede the development of neurotypical children. Yet when it comes to children on the spectrum, bilingualism is still viewed as a potential problem.

Undergraduate students delivers therapy to a young client

Under supervision, a graduate student delivers therapy to a young client in a Communicative Disorders Program clinic on campus.

“Bilingualism is often guilty until proven innocent,” Yu says. “It’s almost like we have to start from scratch and ask the same question over again.”

Yu and Hsia will soon be posing that question — and many more — through the Autism and Heritage Language Research Lab, a new effort funded by a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation supplemented by support from SF State’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. Working with SF State graduate and undergraduate students, Yu and Hsia will survey, interview and track Chinese- and English-speaking families with children on the spectrum in an attempt to determine the long-term impact of bilingualism. The lab’s work builds on an intensive, months-long observation Yu did of an autistic boy named Oscar while she was completing her dissertation through the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education that SF State offers in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley. Yu’s work with Oscar — the basis for recent articles in Scientific American and The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders — documented the unintended and problematic effects of the English-only advice on Oscar’s daily interactions with his family. For example, family members found that certain things they wanted to convey to Oscar were difficult to get across in English because the language didn’t come as naturally to them. And though they only spoke to Oscar in English, they continued to speak to each other mostly in Chinese, thus cutting him out of the conversation on a regular basis.

All that comes as no surprise to Professor of Special Education Pamela Wolfberg, who’s been developing therapies for children on the spectrum for three decades. The creator of the influential Integrated Play Groups (IPG) approach, which helps autistic children develop language skills through imaginative play with neurotypical peers, Wolfberg makes presentations and leads trainings around the world. She says she often hears about therapists and teachers who advise parents not to use more than one language around their autistic kids, advice she wishes they’d stop dispensing. Individuals with ASD can have a hard time connecting with the people around them, she reasons. Why make that even more difficult?

“Parents should be able to speak their native tongue to their child,” she says. “They’re children and families first. That’s the most important thing. You have to look at the culture of the family — and language is a key part of that — and make it naturalistic.”

Undergraduate student delivers therapy to a young client

A graduate student leads a young client through a story sequencing and listening exercise in a Communicative Disorders Program clinic on campus.

Wolfberg and Yu collaborated on the creation of Project Common Ground, a training program for speech pathologists working with children on the spectrum that was launched in 2011 with $1.25 million from the U.S. Department of Education. It was preceded by Project Mosaic, a training program for teachers and other professionals started with $800,000 in Department of Education money 10 years ago. According to Wolfberg, it’s all part of a long history of cutting-edge work on autism that can be traced back to her late mentor, SF State’s Professor Adriana Loes Schuler.

“She was really an important figure,” Wolfberg says of Schuler (who passed away in 2011). “She was one of the first people to write a book on autism and communication, and that was in the 1970s when there was maybe a small bookcase of books about autism.”

Wolfberg describes Schuler as a skeptic who always wanted to see proof before she’d give credence to a new theory, which makes the Autism and Heritage Language Research Lab a fitting tribute to her legacy. Yu and Hsia are challenging the conventional wisdom — and, in the process, validating the choices of parents like Yoshino who also have decided to defy it.

Yoshino says she was relieved when Yu told her to follow her instincts and use English and her native Japanese at home with her child. After her daughter received therapy at SF State’s Communicative Disorders Program Speech-Language Therapy Clinic as part of an ASD communication therapy group run by Yu, she says she’s seen encouraging signs of progress.

“She’s been more interested in back-and-forth communication and communicating with people outside the family,” Yoshino says. “It’s exciting.”

Gwen Yu, who began bringing her autistic son to the Autism Spectrum Communication Clinic a few years ago, feels the same way. With encouragement from Professor Yu (no relation), she and her husband decided to keep speaking the Chinese dialect Taishan in their home. Though she says her son still has a long way to go with his communication skills, he’s currently mainstreamed in a public school — and who knows what advances he’ll make from there?

“The world’s getting smaller, and everyone talks about globalization,” she says. “In the future it seems like more people will be speaking multiple languages and communicating with each other. That’s my dream for my son: that a child with autism can have that opportunity, too.”


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