Bilingualism May Aid Autistic Children

According to the author, Rick Nauert PhD, new research suggests that being bilingual may help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) shift tasks. This is important because it is a skill that is often difficult for children with autism.

This finding was also important, according to Canadian researchers, because it could suggest that being bilingual may offer cognitive advantages.

The senior author of the paper was Professor Aparna Nadig, from the School of communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. This study also appeared in the journal Child Development.

According to Nadig, “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,”. Researchers have argued 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, according to Nadig.

The most exciting part of these findings is that no research before had clearly demonstrated the advantages of bilingualism that may also extend to children with autism spectrum.

In the study, the researchers arrived to their conclusions 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 10 children in each category. The children were asked to short a single object appearing on a computer screen by color, and were then asked to switch and sort the same object instead by their shape. The researchers found that bilingual children with ASD preformed significantly better in the more complex portion of the task-shifting test relative to children with ASD who were monolingual. However, researchers believe there needs to be more sound evidence before advising this to families, since families with ASD children are often advice to not expose their children to more than once language because it could worsen their language difficulties.

According to Nauert, despite the small sample size, the researchers believe that the “bilingual advantage” they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications and should be studied further. The researchers plan to follow the children with ASD that were tested in the study for the next three to five years and see how they have developed. They want to see if the advantages they observed in the lab could also be observed in the daily life of the  bilingual children as they age.

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