It can happen that our multilingual child is given a diagnosis which we fear is not taking into account the specifics of our linguistic landscape. It may leave us feeling helpless and confused, to say the least. We often are not sure whether we should get a second opinion or accept the diagnosis without question.
Multilingual Living’s resident expert, Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, answers the following question about the diagnosis of Autism for a 2-year old multilingual. Could language delay be the problem? Or perhaps it is best to get a second opinion?
I tutor English to an Italian woman who has a 23 month old. While she speaks Italian to her son, her husband speaks English. The child doesn’t say more than five words in either language. Recently because of the concerns of a play group teacher, a language therapist has been asked to give the child therapy weekly (she has no experience with bilingual families). This therapist is making it sound as if the child should be tested for autism. Are there similar incidences you can direct me to? I don’t think the child is autistic, I think his language is delayed because he is learning two languages at once, but then I am neither a speech therapist nor am I qualified to diagnose autism….please help me bring some peace to this woman…thank you.
The child you speak of has a total vocabulary of about 10 words. This is how vocabulary is counted for multilinguals, for the simple reason that they are not monolinguals. And 10 words is within the normal range for a child not yet 2 years old.
Your statement that the child’s language “is delayed because he is learning two languages at once” lacks support. There is no known correlation between multilingualism and language delay, which means that there cannot be any causal relationship between multilingualism and language delay. For comparison, one of my children, also raised multilingually, had three words altogether, two in one language and one in another, when she turned 2. She’s 21 today and doing fine in all of her three languages, including academically.
Autism is a serious diagnosis, and I am concerned at the possible rashness with which it sound like it may have been suggested here. What are the typical symptoms of Autism that this child presents with, and that differ from typical development in a multilingual 2-year-old?
Please note that Autism has nothing whatsoever to do with multilingualism, because autism is not a language disorder and because multilingualism is not the cause of any disorder, linguistic or otherwise.
If the parents are concerned, which they no doubt will be if their child has been labeled both as possibly delayed and possibly autistic, neither of which can be attributed to the use of more than one language in their family, I have three suggestions:
First, that they consider seeking a second opinion from a therapist who has experience with multilingual children, who is multilingual herself or, preferably, both.
Second, that they attempt to educate the play group teacher about multilingualism.
My third suggestion is that the parents contact me privately, if they wish to discuss my response in greater detail.
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