School, la escuela, l’école, 学校. These words all have the same meaning, but are written in different languages. Students who speak a language other than English at home make up 43.3% of students in the New York City Department of Education (2013-2014). When students come from homes that do not speak English, using their home language provides a number of social, cultural, and cognitive benefits, which may be especially advantageous for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Individuals with ASD have many strengths, including creativity, attention to detail, vast knowledge about special interests, and an ability to see the world from a different perspective. Along with these strengths, students experience social difficulties and difficulties with executive functions (Eylen et. al., 2011). Executive functions include skills that relate to organization, planning, self-regulation, and flexibility. Therefore, it’s particularly promising not only that “bilingual exposure does not delay acquisition” (Hambly and Fombonne, 2012, as cited in Fahim & Nedwick, 2014), but “the mastery of two languages provides bilingual speakers with cognitive benefits over monolinguals, particularly on cognitive flexibility and selective attention” (Crivello, 2016).
In the classroom & beyond
When working with multilingual students, there are several best practices to keep in mind, and these supports often overlap with best practices for students with ASD. Below are some guidelines for working with this ever-increasing population of multilingual students with ASD:
- Speak with families about what languages are used at home, in what environments, and with which important people in the student’s life. This will help you gain a better understanding of the child’s linguistic and potentially cultural experiences, which will necessarily influence their social expectations and competencies (for example, in some cultures it is not polite to make eye contact, make contact with other genders, speak to the elderly, etc.). This can also help you learn more about your student’s special interests.
- Learn a few words in your student’s home language(s) to use when communicating with the student and his/her family. This signals respect to the child’s identity and their culture. Use of these words may also support comprehension and support children’s background knowledge.
- Work closely with translators or interpreters to ensure that families understand information you are sending home about the student’s progress and the Nest philosophy. Whenever possible, translate material that is being sent home.
- Use visual supports to complement spoken directions and as labels. This supports all children with ASD, but particularly those that are still mastering English.
- Support learning with relevant, hands-on materials in instruction. Once again, this engages all students in Nest classrooms, but will also help support students whose English language skills are still developing.