New guide supports bilingual children with autism

A new resource to support autistic children who are bilingual or are learning English as an additional language has been co-created by West Sussex County Council and the University of Chichester.

‘An evidence based guide to autism and bilingualism’ was officially launched at the university on Friday, 18 March 2022 and is now available to help schools, professionals and families nationwide.

The Council’s Autism and Social Communications Team and its Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service Team worked with the University to collate key research and produce a guide with practical new strategies to support autistic pupils to develop English alongside their home language(s).

The guide also dispels the misconception that, because autistic children and young people have difficulties processing language, they should stick to only one language, English. Instead, the extensive research carried out by Dr Diana Seach, the University’s former Principal Lecturer in Special Education, outlines the many benefits of bilingual learning. This includes the importance of maintaining a first language for a child’s sense of identity and cultural heritage, and how it can assist a child’s intellectual development.

Dr Seach said: “We have co-produced this guide to highlight the intersection between autism and bilingualism and provide teachers and clinicians with strategies which recognise the ways in which the languages spoken at home and at school are fundamental to their learning and social development.”

Recent years have seen a rise in the number of bilingual children on the autism spectrum. Department for Education figures show there are now over 20,000 children in England with autism who have a first language other than English, a rise also seen in West Sussex.

For any child who does not speak English as a first language, learning at an English school can be more difficult. And for those with autism, a condition characterised by difficulties in processing language and social cues, the English-based curriculum can be especially challenging. As a result, families have sometimes been encouraged to focus on learning English only so children ‘fit in’ at school.

The research collated in the guide, however found there are no additional delays in the language development of bilingual autistic children and instead, that these children often have larger vocabularies than those surrounded by only one language.

Jacquie Russell, West Sussex County Council Cabinet Member for Children and Young People, said: “This innovative new guide is the latest collaborative piece of work involving our autism team and our Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service and demonstrates our joint work to support every child, especially those who have additional needs.

“In West Sussex there is a wealth of knowledge, experience and support around autism and ethnic minorities so it is great to work with the University to share this expertise for the benefit of families here and further afield.

“This great piece of work places no limit on what a child with autism can achieve and shows how important someone’s culture is to their individual identity.”

The County Council’s Autism and Social Communications Team and the Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service Team work closely with mainstream schools to offer individual training, advice and support, and schools are already benefiting from the new guide.

Sarah Stringer, deputy head of inclusion at Northgate Primary School in Crawley said: “We have high numbers of autistic children who are learning through English as an additional language. This guide will be so useful to support our parents and teachers, especially the practical strategies.”

You can find this guide and many other resources around autism and social communication needs on the Local Offer website.

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