High-functioning autism and second language development:A case study

  • Norma Patricia Barletta Universidad del Norte
Keywords: High-functioning autism, language development, sociocultural theory


Children with autism experience difficulties to develop their first language. Learning a second language (L2) can imply additional challenges even if immersed in a second language environment. The objective of this case study is to describe some of the features of the development of English as L2 in a six-year old child with high-functioning autism recently arrived in the US. The objective is to compare the process with that of typically developing children. Data were obtained from observations of tutorial sessions, which were recorded, transcribed and analyzed following Vygotsky´s dialectical method, in which learning is seen as a dynamic and complex process. The analysis shows that though the child experiences most phases as typically developing children do, some of the autistic features represent a challenge for L2 learning. However, given a permanent support on a one-to-one basis, some of these features can become an advantage for L2 learning.


Author Biography

Norma Patricia Barletta, Universidad del Norte

Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching

Associate professor at Universidad del Norte.


Ahmadian, M.J. (2013). The use of micrognetic method in SLA research. Applied Research on English Language, 2(1), 61-67

Bauminger, N., & Kasari, C. (1999). Brief report: Theory of Mind in high-functioning children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29, 81–86.

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2000). Theory of mind and autism: A fifteen-year review. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. J. Cohen (Eds.) Understanding other minds: Perspectives from develop- mental cognitive neuroscience (pp. 3–20). Oxford University Press: Oxford

Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). The Empathizing-systematizing (E-S) theory. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156(1), 68-80.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A, & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21, 37-46.

Boulima, J. (1999) Negotiated interaction in target language classroom discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Clarke, P. (1999). Investigating second language acquisition in preschools: A longitudinal study of four Vietnamese-speaking children’s acquisition of English in bilingual preschool. International Journal of Early Years Education, 7 (1), 17-24

Donato, R. (2000). Sociocultural contributions to understanding the foreign and second language classroom. In J. P. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning (pp. 27-50). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Drysdale, H., van der Meer, L. & Kagohara, D. (2015). Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder from Bilingual Families: a Systematic Review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2(1), 26-38

Duff, C. & Flattery, J. (2014). Developing mirror self-awareness in students with autism spectrum disorders. Autism Developmental Disorders, 44, 1027-1038. doi: 10.1007/s10803-013-1954-0

Dulay, H.& Burt, M. (1974). Natural sequences in child second language acquisition. Language Learning 24, 37-53.

Kay-Raining Bird, E., Lamond, E., & Holden, J. (2012). Survey of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorders. International Journal of Language Communication Disorders, 47(1), 52-64. Doi: 10.1111/j.1460-6984.2011.00071.x

Lantolf, J. (2000). Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lantolf, J. (2003) Interpersonal communication and internalization in the second language classroom. In A. Kozulin, V. Ageev, S. Miller, & B. Grindis. ( Eds), Vygotsky’s theory of education in cultural context (pp.349-392). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lawson, W. (2003). Depth accessibility difficulties: An alternative conceptualization of Autism Spectrum Conditions. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior. 33 (2), 189-202 doi: 10.1111/1468-5914.00213

Mahn, H. (1999). Vygotsky’s methodological contribution to sociocultural theory. Remedial and Special Education, 20(6), 341-350

Mundy, P., Sigman, M., & Kasari, C. (1994). Joint attention, developmental level, and symptom presentation in young children with autism. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 389–401.

Nichols, H.R. (1980). Learning how to mean in a second language. Australian Journal of Applied Linguistics,3(1), 39-48

Peterson, C.C., Garnett, M., Kelly, A., & Attwood, T. (2009). Everyday social and conversation applications of theory-of- mind understanding by children with autism-spectrum disorders or typical development. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 18, 105–115.

Roberts, T. (2014). Not so silent after all: Examination and analysis of the silent stage in childhood second language acquisition. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 1, 22-40 doi: 10.1007/s00787-008-0711-y

Saville-Troike, M. (1988). Private speech: Evidence for second language learning strategies during the ‘silent period’. Child Language, 15, 567-590.

Siegler, R.S. & Crowley, K. (1991). The micrognetic method. A direct means for studying cognitive development. American Psychologist, 46(6), 606-620.

Tabors, P.O. (1997). One child, two languages: A guide for preschool Educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore: Brockes.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes (M.Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.& Trans.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Van Lier, L. (2000). From input to affordance: Social interactive learning from an ecological perspective. In J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 245-260). New York: Oxford University Press.