Bilingualism and Autism

The following information and links give advice on working with bilingual learners who are on the autism spectrum.

Bilingualism and Autism

The following information is from

This is autism awareness month and so I thought it would be a good thing to write a post about autism. I’ve been meaning to do this all month and I’m running out of time! A question that people often ask me is whether bilingualism is an added burden for children with language impairment. We demonstrated through a large study of about 1200 preschool kids that no, bilingualism doesn’t increase risk for language impairment. Okay, but what about more severe impairments? What about children with autism who by definition have particular difficulty with social interaction–wouldn’t bilingualism be a source of additional impairment? Given what I know about language impairment I think the answer is no. And, I wonder too if bilingualism would provide children with these kinds of interaction difficulties additional practice at trying to see other’s perspectives. Because language is learned through social interaction—perhaps bilingualism, by learning TWO sets of social interaction rules would HELP children with autism. Okay, maybe that’s going a little beyond what we currently know, but there are some researchers who are starting to tackle the question of bilingualism and autism and it’s really exciting to see this.

One paper I found in the 2005 Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on BilingualismThis paper, by Kremer-Sadlik is an ethnographic study of children with autism whose families are bilingual. Through interviewing and observation, the author examines the reasons why the families stopped speaking to the child with autism in the home language and switched almost entirely to English. Mainly reasons cited include recommendations by clinicians and doctors. The concern was that these children would become “confused” by exposure to more than one language and that input should be “simplified” by using English only. Kremer-Sadik goes through the available research demonstrating that in fact, children with autism can and do learn two languages. What was most heartbreaking for me was the isolation within the family that was experienced by the child with autism. All the members of one family spoke Chinese, but only English was used with the child who had autism. This resulted in more limited interactions with the child if the rest of the family was using Chinese. And, for the father whose English was more limited, the conversations became more stilted. This has the effect of reducing input to a child when what we want to do is INCREASE input and opportunities for interaction. I think this is an unintended consequence of asking families to only use English with a particular child that we, as clinicians may not always think about.

Two other more recent studies provide additional data demonstrating that bilingualism does not make autism worse. Petersen, Marinova-Todd, and Mirenda (2012) compared vocabulary knowledge of bilingual and monolingual children with autism. A total of 28 preschool children participated, 14 were Chinese-English bilinguals and 14 were monolingual English speakers. Non-verbal IQ was higher for the bilinguals than the monolinguals, so it was used as a co-variate in the analyses. Once IQ was controlled for there were no differences between the two groups on English language vocabulary or conceptual vocabulary, but there was for total vocabulary. The effect for total vocabulary was because the Chinese-English speaking children knew words in both of their languages. Within the bilingual group there were no differences by language. This study is important because it demonstrates that vocabulary acquisition is comparable across monolingual and bilingual groups. Note however that the bilingual children have larger total vocabulary (summing up the two languages together). This is because they need to learn how to meet linguistic demands in both their languages.

Another question about bilingualism has to do with the timing of a explore to a second language. Some children have bilingual exposure from birth. Others have their second language exposure when they first start school—often preschool or kindergarten. Some children may move between countries when they are older exposing them to a second langue at a later point. A question is whether there are differential effects in early vs. later exposure to two languages. Obviously, it takes some time to learn a second language, so children starting that language later need to time to catch up. But, it’s also important to know whether this can slow down the first language.

Children with Autism have particular difficulties with social-pragmatic aspects of language. It may be that children with these kinds of difficulties have more problems navigating the social demands of two languages. Children who are bilingual have less exposure to each language but still need to learn the pragmatic demands of each. Hambly and Fombonne (2012) compared bilingual children with autism who had exposure to two languages from birth and those who started exposure to their second language at 12 months or later. Children were between the ages of 3 and 6-1/2 year old. Vocabulary measures (using the MCDI) and the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-Second Edition were given. Parents answered questions on the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised and responded to questions on the Social Responsiveness Scale. Results indicated differences on the VABS-II—interpersonal domain section, where the simultaneous bilingual children scored highest, followed by the monolingual and finally the sequential bilingual children, but there were no significant differences in expressive or receptive vocabulary. Also, there were no differences in achievement of language milestones.

The Hambly and Formbonne results indicate bilingualism doesn’t seem to affect language learning in children with autism. While they did not discuss the differences on the interpersonal scale, I wonder if the result seen for the simultaneous bilinguals isn’t suggestive of some of the advantages of longer-term bilingualism. The sequential bilinguals scored lowest on this and it may be that with more bilingual experience they would catch up, but this is speculative. Nonetheless the finding that language acquisition isn’t affected negatively by bilingualism should quell some fears. As clinicians we should encourage and support parents’ decisions to raise their children bilingually if that is their intent.

Being bilingual may help autistic children

Study suggests bilingualism may increase cognitive flexibility in kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

January 16, 2018
McGill University
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently published in Child Development.

“This is a novel and surprising finding,” says Prof. Aparna Nadig, the senior author of the paper, from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. “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.”

The researchers arrived at this conclusion after comparing how easily 40 children between the ages of six and nine, with or without ASD, who were either monolingual or bilingual, were able to shift tasks in a computer-generated test. There were ten children in each category.

Blue rabbits or red boats

The children were initially asked to sort a single object appearing on a computer screen by colour (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 instead by their shape (i.e. sort blue rabbits and red boats by shape regardless of their color).

The researchers found that bilingual children with ASD performed significantly better when it came to the more complex part of the task-shifting test relative to children with ASD who were unilingual. It is a finding which has potentially far-reaching implications for the families of children with ASD.

“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,” says Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, the paper’s first author, and a recent McGill PhD graduate. “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.”

Despite the small sample size, the researchers believe that the ‘bilingual advantage’ that they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications and should be studied further. They plan to follow the children with ASD that they tested in this study over the next three-five years to see how they develop. The researchers want to see whether the bilingual advantage they observed in the lab may also be observed in daily life as the children age.

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Materials provided by McGill UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. 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