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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder, which typically begins in early childhood and persists throughout the individual’s life. This disease is multifaceted, as it can hinder one’s sociability, cause learning problems, and hamper one’s overall executive functioning—however, researchers may have found a surprising way to counter or alleviate some of these affects.

A new study “Can Bilingualism Mitigate Set-Shifting Difficulties in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders?” from McGill University says that being bilingual may benefit children on the autism spectrum. These individuals often have a hard time shifting their focus from one task to another—but possessing the ability to speak multiple languages may allow them to do so more easily.

“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,” senior author Professor Aparna Nadig explained. “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.”

Nadig’s team reached these findings after studying 40 children, aged 6-9: some of these kids had ASD, while others did not; and some of them were bilingual, while others were monolingual. Each subject was tasked with sorting objects into different categories based on their color (e.g. sort the orange dogs and green cats into the orange or green group); then, they were told to sort these same objects based on their shape (e.g., forget about the color, sort the orange dogs and green cats by their shape).

The researchers observed each subject as they shifted between these two tasks on a computer-generated test and then, at the conclusion of the experiment, compared the performances. They observed that bilingual children with ASD performed significantly better at shifting between tasks, as compared to children with ASD who were monolingual—which may be of meaningful significance to families of children with ASD.

Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, first author of the paper and recent McGill PhD graduate explains the implications of this study: “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.”

This research team plans to continue studying these very subjects with ASD as they grow over the next few years to see just how they develop; they hope to better understand how this bilingual advantage seen in the lab may carry over into real everyday functioning. And while the answer is not yet clear, the researchers believe that bilingualism may very well better the lives of children with ASD—and if nothing else, it is worth further investigation.

McGill University (2018, January 16). Being Bilingual May Help Autistic Children. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 16, 2018 from

Gonzalez-Barrero, A. B., & Nadig, A. S. (2017, November 7). Can Bilingualism Mitigate Set-Shifting Difficulties in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders? Child Development. Retrieved on January 18, 2018 from

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