In the first study of its kind, scientists show that bilingual children with autism spectrum disorders can switch mental gears more easily than those who can only speak one language.

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Being bilingual may improve cognitive flexibility in children with autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a growing concern in the United States, affecting an estimated 1 in 68 children.

Despite the prevalence and years of research, there are still several unanswered questions about how and why ASD develops, and how best to manage it. Researchers are looking at these queries from all angles.

A new study gains fresh insight by approaching from an interesting direction; the researchers set out to understand whether or not being bilingual might provide improved cognitive flexibility in children with ASD.

There is growing evidence to suggest that being bilingual enhances executive functions, which are a set of cognitive processes including attentional control, inhibiting behavior, and working memory.

Executive functions also include cognitive flexibility, referred to as set-shifting. This is the topic of interest in the current study.

The improvement in executive function is believed to happen because using two languages means that a person has to switch between mental modes smoothly and quickly. Over time, with practice, this switching of linguistic systems may limber up overall cognitive performance.

Although there have been a number of studies investigating improvements in executive function in people who are bilingual, not all have found a significant effect.

Also, some researchers assign any reported improvements in cognitive flexibility to other factors, such as socioeconomic group or better memory skills. There remains much discussion on the matter.

Children with ASD tend to find it harder to “switch gears” when changing tasks, as their cognitive flexibility is impaired. Some of the common features of ASD mirror this issue. For instance, they tend to have a narrower focus, a desire to keep things unchanged, and inflexible daily routines.

The authors of the current study wanted to discover whether being bilingual is of benefit to children with ASD, as far as cognitive flexibility is concerned.

The authors set out the question they want to answer: “Can being bilingual mitigate the set-shifting impairment observed in children with ASD?”

The team was headed up by senior author Prof. Aparna Nadig, from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The findings are published in the journal Child Development.

The study included 40 children, of whom 20 were typically developing children (10 monolinguals and 10 bilinguals) and 20 were diagnosed with ASD (10 monolinguals and 10 bilinguals). None of them had intellectual disabilities.

Each participant carried out a computer-based task that involved sorting objects. During the task, they were presented with a range of objects and were asked to sort them by color. Then, after a while, they were asked to switch to sorting by shape.

This switching can be challenging for children with ASD, and they tend to perform less well.

It was found that the bilingual children with ASD managed the cognitive switching more easily than monolingual children with ASD. However, as expected, working memory was equivalent between the groups.

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.”

First study author Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, Ph.D.

Gonzalez-Barrero continues, “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.”

Although the findings are intriguing, the study has some shortfalls. For instance, it included just 40 children (only 10 of whom were bilingual children with ASD). For this reason, much larger trials are needed.

The research throws out a wealth of new questions. Hopefully, future studies will provide us with a fuller picture. The authors plan to follow the participants of the current study over the next 3 to 5 years to see how they develop.