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Bilingualism May Boost Cognitive Flexibility in Children with Autism

January 18, 2018 | by Dena Friedman

A new study by researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Québec, reveals for the first time that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who are also bilingual, may have greater facility with transitioning between tasks than those who are monolingual.

Their findings were based on the comparison of 40 children (20 with ASD, 20 typically developing) between ages six and nine, and who were either bilingual or monolingual and the ease at which they were able to shift tasks in a computer-generated test using images of blue rabbits and red boats.  There were ten children

in each category.  The children were initially asked to

sort the objects by color (i.e. sort blue rabbits and red boats as being either red or blue), and were then asked to switch and sort the same objects, this time by shape (i.e. sort blue rabbits and blue boats by shape regardless of their color).

"This is a novel and surprising finding," says Professor Aparna Nadig, the senior author of the paper, from McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. "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 added.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

The researchers feel that the bilingual ‘advantage’ that they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications that merit further study. They want to see if this same advantage observed in the lab can also be observed in daily life as the children age.

Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, the paper's first author, and a recent McGill Ph.D. graduate, said, "It is critical to have more sound evidence for families to use when making important educational and child-rearing decisions, since they are often advised that exposing a child with ASD to more than one language will just worsen their language difficulties. But, there are an increasing number of families with children with ASD for whom using two or more languages is a common and valued practice and, as we know, in bilingual societies such as ours in Montreal, speaking only one language can be a significant obstacle in adulthood for employment, educational, and community opportunities."

The study was reported in EurekAlert! and published in the journal, Child Development.

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