• Autism spectrum disorder is defined as a neurological and developmental disorder that begins in childhood and affects the individual for the duration of his or her life.
  • This disorder can have damaging effects on one’s life from hindering social skills, as well as learning abilities, and overall functioning.
  • The good news is there are effective ways of combatting the harmful effects and symptoms of ASD—such as speaking multiple languages.
  • Researchers say that multilingualism could improve executive functioning in children with ASD, as it might help them shift focus from one task to another more easily.
  • This is the first time a study has shown an increase in cognitive flexibility in children with ASD due to bilingualism, which demands a need for further research.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental condition that typically begins in early childhood and persists throughout the individual’s life. This disease can hinder one’s life in several capacities: it can impede 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 effects.

Multilingualism: A Phenomenon That Could Benefit Autistic Children

A recent study “Can Bilingualism Mitigate Set-Shifting in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders?” from McGill University says that being bilingual or multilingual might benefit children with autism. These kids 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.

Senior Author and Professor Aparna Nadig explained their findings to NeuroscienceNews: “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.”

Study Exploration and Investigation

The research team studied 40 children, aged 6-9 years. Some of these kids had ASD, while others did not; and some of them spoke multiple languages, while others were only fluent in one. Each participant was tasked with sorting objects into different categories based on their color. For example: 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. For example: Forget about the color, sort the orange dogs and green cats by shape.

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 with children with ASD who spoke only one language.

Real-Life Implications: Improved Functioning for Kids with ASD?

While their findings appear promising, Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, first author of the paper and recent McGill PhD graduate notes that further research is needed to better understand the effects of multilingualism on kids with ASD. She tells NeuroscienceNews: “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…”

The team plans to continue studying these study 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 isn’t 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 https://neurosciencenews.com/bilingual-autism-8321/

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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdev.12979/full