Bilingualism Would Be an Asset for Children with Autism: Look What It Does

Armen Hareyan's picture
autism and bilingualism

Make sure your children know at least two languages. One study concludes that bilingualism could increase cognitive flexibility in children with Autism spectrum disorder.

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Being bilingual could be an advantage for autistic children, according to a study by a team of researchers at McGill University in Montreal.

The results of the research project were recently published in the journal "Child Development."

The study concludes that bilingualism could increase cognitive flexibility - switching between two different tasks - in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Speaking two languages ​​seems to be an asset for autistic children when they have to move from one task to another, which they often have difficulty doing, researchers noted.

The research team came to this conclusion after observing the degree of ease with which 40 children aged 6 to 9, with or without autism spectrum disorder, unilingual or bilingual (speaking a combination of two of the three following languages: French, English, and Spanish), passed from one task to another as part of a computer test.

The Test

The children were asked to identify an object according to its color - blue bunny or red boat. Then, they were asked to do the same thing, but this time, depending on the shape - rabbit or boat - regardless of the color.

Conclusion

The researchers found that among children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, those who were bilingual were much better at changing tasks than those who spoke only one language.

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According to Aparna Nadig, the lead author of the article and a professor at the School of Human Communication Sciences at McGill University, this is a "surprising" discovery.

"The results of the study apply to a location in which bilingualism is prevalent, such as Montreal," explained Professor Nadig in a telephone interview, "and children with advanced knowledge of two languages."

"The study is a first," she says. "While other studies have demonstrated the benefits of bilingualism for cognitive and thinking functions in a professional setting, this is the first time such a study has looked at the impact in children with autism, the professor explained."

"Over the past 15 years there has been a significant debate in the field about whether there is a 'bilingual advantage' in terms of executive functions. Some researchers have argued convincingly that living as a bilingual person and having to switch languages unconsciously to respond to the linguistic context in which the communication is taking place increases cognitive flexibility. But no one has yet published research that clearly demonstrates that this advantage may also extend to children on the autism spectrum. And so it's very exciting to find that it does," she said.

She believes these results are important for parents making decisions for their children's learning and education.

"There is a belief that bilingualism is harmful or is a problem for children with autism spectrum disorder," she says.

"But not only does it not cause a problem, it could actually be an advantage."

The researchers acknowledge the small size of the sample, but are of the opinion that the advantage of bilingualism is significant and that it should be the subject of further study. They would also like to re-evaluate young people in a few years to see if the differences are still there.

By the way, there is another approach from the University of California Riverside, according to which a simple guessing game of "Pick a hand, any hand" may offer some important clues as to how and why children with autism are less social than their schoolyard peers.

If your child speaks more than one language, please, let us know in the comments section below if you see any advantages in his/her decision making or performing challenging tasks vs their friends who speak only one language. Also, check out these 10 Tips to Calm Down an Autistic Child in Meltdown, written by an eMaxHealth past contributor Tamar Najarian.

Journal Reference: Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, Aparna S. Nadig. Can Bilingualism Mitigate Set-Shifting Difficulties in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders? Child Development, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12979.

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