Learning a second language may benefit children with autism

For many, fluency in more than one language would be considered an obvious asset. Yet, the concept of a “bilingual advantage” is still widely debated, particularly for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Often, parents are advised to raise children with ASD monolingually to avoid compounding potential language delays resulting from autism. Controversy surrounding the effects of bilingualism on executive functions, or the set of cognitive processes that control behaviour, is especially prevalent.

A new study conducted by Associate Professor Aparna Nadig from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and McGill alumnus Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, suggests that proficiency in a second language may help—and not hinder—the cognitive flexibility of children with ASD. After presenting 40 children between the ages of six and nine with a series of card sorting tasks, the researchers found that those who were bilingual performed significantly better on the most complex phase than the monolingual subjects. For the tests, children were seated at a laptop and ranked images of boats and rabbits based on their size and colour.

“Something that I, and even the parents, found interesting was that the task the children were doing on the laptop was quite challenging, even for adults,” Gonzalez-Barrero said. “It had different phases, but on the most complex [one], the bilingual children [with ASD] performed really well. [Some] parents observing their children were surprised [….They] told me that ‘If you asked me to perform this task, I think I wouldn’t be as good as my child.’”

According to Nadig, activities related to cognitive flexibility, including switching from one task to another (set-shifting) and approaching a problem from a different perspective are actions that people with autism typically struggle to carry out. Gonzalez-Barrero explained that, given the stringent requirements for the population study, the scientific literature on children with ASD—let alone bilingual children with autism—is limited.

“This is the first study to our knowledge that is looking at whether bilingualism may provide advantages on cognitive flexibility for children with autism spectrum disorders,” Gonzalez-Barrero said. “There are several articles that have reported a bilingual advantage in adults and in children [suggesting] better cognitive skills in some specific tasks for bilingual relative to monolingual individuals, but this hasn’t been explored [extensively] in children with developmental disorders [….] We wanted to see if the bilingual advantage could be generalized to children in the autism spectrum.”

For this study alone, participants had to undergo a two-hour testing session in each language they spoke—English, French, or Spanish—and had to have received at least 20 per cent exposure to their second language since birth. Participants’ parents and independent bilingual graders also listened to the subjects’ speech and rated their fluency on a four-point scale.

With their work, Nadig and Gonzalez-Barrero contributed additional literature for families to consult when making important educational and child rearing decisions.

“There are an increasing number of families with children with ASD for whom using two or more languages is a common and valued practice,” Nadig said. “As we know in bilingual societies such as ours, speaking only one language can be a significant obstacle in adulthood for employment, educational, and community opportunities.”

Nadig and Gonzalez-Barrero’s study is long-term, and they will continue observing the same group of children over three to five years. In this next phase of their research, they hope to examine the effects of bilingualism on the childrens’ daily life behaviours, such as their ability to set-shift when confronted with a challenging activity.

“We have a companion study to this one that will be coming out shortly, where we investigated more complex language skills at school age in the same sample of children with ASD,” Nadig said. “We found there that bilingual children’s language skills were still in the normal range in their dominant language, so once again, the take home message is that bilingualism is not harmful.”

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