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Since as many as 21% of school-age children in the United States speak a language other than English at home, it is likely that percentage includes a number of autistic children. It has long been assumed that exposing autistic children to two or more languages can exacerbate social communication challenges they may have. As a result, professionals typically recommend that caregivers and teachers only teach these children one language, English.  

However, research comparing monolingual and bilingual children’s language abilities has demonstrated that bilingualism does not lead to language delays in autistic children, beyond those that are due to the disability. In addition, being bilingual has a positive effect on neurotypical children and may have the same benefits for autistic children.  

For this OAR-funded, 22-month study,  A Comparison of Simultaneous and Sequential Bilingualism in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Mirela Cengher, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus (UMBC), will compare the acquisition of a small vocabulary when teaching two languages simultaneously versus sequentially to determine if simultaneous learning will:  

  • Be more effective and more efficient as a teaching method.
  • Lead to maintaining the vocabulary over time.
  • Enable the children to translate between languages.

The research team will recruit 24 autistic children between the ages of 3 and 12. Participants will include both monolingual (i.e., native English speakers) and bilingual children. The children will be put into groups of six as they are recruited, for a total of four cohorts. Each cohort will go through language instruction sequentially with the second group beginning instruction when the first group is almost done. One language will be English and the second language will be chosen in consultation with caregivers and teachers. 

Each participant will receive one-on-one instruction in two to three one-hour sessions per week. Before they begin their instruction, the research team will ask parents and teachers to select objects that the participants don’t know but may encounter in their daily life. In addition, the parents will choose a number of toys that can be used as rewards for correct responses.  

The team will select 100 objects for each participant and assess each participant’s selection to determine if they can identify any of them in the two languages they will be learning. If they can, the object will be discarded. From the remaining objects, the team will assign 30 items to each kind of instruction the study is using: 

  • Simultaneous: Participants will be taught to label the items in the two languages within the same sessions. 
  • Sequential: Participants will be taught to label the items in one language first. Once the participants meet the mastery criteria for the items learned in the first language, they will be exposed to instruction in the other language. 
  • Sequential (reverse order): This is the same as sequential above but with the order of teaching the two languages reversed.  
  • Control: Participants will be taught to label the items in one language to allow the research team to compare performance in one language only versus two languages. 

In each session, the research team member will place 10 pictures of objects one at a time in front of the child and ask the child to identify each one. If the child answers correctly within five seconds of seeing the picture, it will be counted as a correct response. The child will be considered to have mastered identification of the object in two languages when they correctly identify 90% of the objects. 

To determine how well the children can translate, the team will present participants with questions about objects that they have learned how to label, but that are out of sight. 

For example, if a participant has learned to label dog in English and Portuguese, during the translation evaluation, the researcher will ask “What is the name of dog in Portuguese?” and “What is the name of cachorro in English?”  

To evaluate how well learners remember the vocabulary, the research team will test participants at two weeks, one month, two months, three months, and six months after the sessions are completed. 


Using both visual analysis and multilevel modeling, the research team will examine differences between conditions. They also plan to examine how individual characteristics influence performance under the different conditions. 


This pilot study will inform future research on bilingualism and language acquisition among autistic learners. Dr. Cengher and her team intend to replicate the results using a different research study design to increase the generality of the findings. They also expect to generate new research questions, based on this study’s outcomes. For example, if they find a benefit to mastery of the language when the vocabulary is taught in the familiar language first, the team could focus a future study on evaluating the level of familiarity with the vocabulary in the two languages. Finally, this study represents the foundation for the researchers’ long-term goal, which is to develop a line of research that will identify optimal procedures for teaching two languages to autistic children. 

Practical Relevance

The study’s outcomes could potentially provide a procedural framework that clinicians and educators could use to develop better teaching practices to use with autistic children from  diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. For example, if the data confirm that simultaneous bilingualism produces better outcomes, autistic children from diverse linguistic households could begin learning English on the first day of school, and new vocabulary could be taught in both languages concurrently.  

Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.