Until relatively recently, bilingual families with children with ASD were often advised by professionals to stick to one language within the household.
“I think people still take the advice that if a language is difficult for a child, they should speak English because two languages are even more difficult,” says Gross. “And it can have many negative effects on a child’s positive development, such as their identity, their ability to communicate, and their ability to interact with family members who may not speak English. In conditions like autism, communication is one area that can cause challenges, and in addition, creating language barriers between children and their families can be very problematic. There is a possibility.”
Gross points out that recent research shows that exposure to bilingualism does not adversely affect the development of children on the autism spectrum. “Beyond that, we need to understand how we are actually facilitating bilingual development in children with autism,” she says.
Gross examines the types of bilingual environments children with ASD aged 4 to 6 are exposed to and various factors related to their ability to speak and understand both Spanish and English. She also looks at the child’s social communication and social cognitive skills, such as cognitive flexibility, and her ability to understand and communicate in two languages.
To enable the inclusion of non-verbal children, Gross uses innovative eye-tracking technology to analyze the ability of bilinguals to understand spoken language. A camera at the bottom of her laptop computer tracks the child’s eye movements as English or Spanish words and phrases are played out loud.
“By tracking their eye movements over time, we can tell if they understood the words and phrases they heard because they need to see the corresponding pictures,” says Gross. says Mr. “This is a group I am particularly interested in including in my research. How to measure what people understand when they are speaking in Spanish or English, even when they are not speaking. And what skills do they have that they cannot show us through the spoken word?”
Gross will spend the first year of the study training and preparing materials, and will begin recruiting families in 2024. Ultimately, she interprets quantitative findings within the context of in-depth qualitative interviews, focusing on her family’s perspectives and challenges. Her long-term goal is to work with families to support services and develop community-based programs that promote the verbal and social cognitive development of bilingual children across the autism spectrum.
“It has been a big interest of mine to contribute to the evidence base at the intersection of bilingual learning and autism,” says Gross.
Her mentor is Helen Tager-Flusberg, professor of psychology and brain science and director of Boston University’s Center for Autism Research (CARE). Kathryn Derose, Professor of Community Health Education and Acting Director of the Center for Community Health Equity Research at UMass Amherst. and Sonja Pruitt-Lord, Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at San Diego State University and Director of the Institute for Child Language, Development, Disability and Disparities.
Respecting the different preferences expressed among autistic adults, family members, and community advisory board members for this project, this work will focus on identity-first (people with autism) and person-first language (self-discipline). Autistic people) use both.