Learning a New Language Could Help Autistic Children

Autism is a developmental disorder indicated by challenges with repetitive behaviors, social skills, speech, and nonverbal communication. Autistic persons have unique strengthens and differences. Figures show that 1 in 68 US children have autism. The disorder is more prevalent among boys than girls. About 1 in 42 boys has autism, while 1 in 189 girls is affected. Autism brings many challenges, but there are different ways to help patients. Being bilingual can be very effective, the latest study says.

Bilingualism and autism

Even though autism is prevalent in the United States and around the globe, little is known about its underlying causes and management strategies. Many studies are still ongoing, and we can expect to learn more about the disorder in the near future. The Child Development journal published a study that provided a useful insight into autism.

Carried out by professor Aparna Nadig and a team of researchers at the McGill University from Montreal, Canada, the study investigated the effects of bilingualism on set-shifting and working memory in children with autism. For this purpose, scientists enrolled 40 children, of whom 20 had autism, and 20 were typically developing. All kids were between 6 and 9 years old.

Both groups (typically developing and autistic) were divided into subgroups that included ten monolingual and ten bilingual children. Each child performed a computer-based task that involved sorting objects. The task presented a range of objects, and children had to sort them by color. After a while, they were asked to start sorting objects by shape.

The main idea behind this task was to analyze how autistic children would perform the task because switching from one activity to another is challenging for them. Generally, persons with autism perform tasks that involve switching the strategy or course of action less well than others.

Findings revealed that bilingual children with autism managed the cognitive switching more easily than their monolingual counterparts. Results also demonstrated that working memory was equivalent between two groups.

Increased cognitive flexibility

The first study of its kind revealed that bilingual autistic children experience greater cognitive flexibility (set-shifting) compared to kids who are monolingual. Scientists were able to confirm a debate that has been discussed for more than 15 years. For more than a decade, it was theorized that a bilingual advantage improves executive functions.

What is behind this improvement, you wonder? Well, it could be due to the fact that using two languages requires a person to switch between mental modes quickly and smoothly. With practice, the switching between two linguistic systems can improve overall cognitive performance. As a result, bilingual autistic children can find it easier to switch from one task to another.

The study gives a glimpse of hope to thousands of families who want to help their autistic children. In the US and Canada, many families are bilingual as they come from different parts of the world. Practicing both languages could help autistic children improve their executive functions too. At the same time, this shows that monolingual children who are taught another language could experience some improvements too.

Of course, Nadig and her team call for more studies on this subject. The goal is to investigate the connection between bilingualism and improved performance in autistic children more thoroughly.


We live in a world where being monolingual is incredibly practical as it prevents our educational and career growth and progress. Being bilingual doesn’t only open doors to success and connection with more people, but it also helps autistic children improve cognitive flexibility. Scientists from Canada found that bilingual children with autism are more able to switch between tasks and perform at a greater level than monolingual counterparts.