A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Winter, 2018 | Number 1, Volume 32

Bilingualism may help children with autism spectrum disorders develop “set-shifting” skills

Parents in households where two languages are spoken are often advised to speak only one language around a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but new research suggests that being bilingual may benefi t these children’s ability to “set-shift” while not impairing their ability to learn language. 

Set-shifting is the ability to easily switch back and forth between tasks in response to demands. Children with ASD are known to be impaired in this ability. Research on neurotypical children suggests that children who continually switch between two languages may develop better set-shifting skills. 

To investigate the effects of bilingualism on set-shifting in ASD, Ana Maria Gonzalez Barrero and Aparna S. Nadig enrolled 40 children between 6 and 9 years of age in their study. Half of the children had high-functioning ASD, and half were neurotypical. Half of the children were bilingual in each group, while the other half spoke only one language. 

The researchers measured set-shifting skills using a computerized task called the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) task, which required the children to sort items based on changing criteria. In addition, they asked parents to fill out a report on the children’s executive function skills (which include planning, set-shifting, working memory, and other skills). They also tested the children’s working memory skills, which they hypothesized would not be affected by bilingualism. 

Parent reports revealed that the children with ASD were significantly impaired in set-shifting during daily life compared to the neurotypical controls. The test of working memory administered by the researchers did not show any differences between the two groups. 

The researchers report, “Results showed an advantage for bilingual relative to monolingual children with ASD on the DCCS task,” although this advantage in set-shifting was not detected in daily life. As expected, working memory was not affected by bilingualism. 

The researchers say that in a recent experiment with an overlapping group of children, they detected a bilingual advantage on a verbal fluency task that included requests such as “Name all of the animals you can think of.” This task, they note, measured both lexical skills and multiple executive function skills. “Thus,” they say, “it appears this bilingual advantage in ASD is not limited to the nonverbal domain or to the particular task we employed in this study.” 

The researchers conclude, “We demonstrate that, contrary to common belief, bilingualism is not harmful to children with ASD (e.g., with respect to their language abilities)… and, in fact, may provide some advantages, such as mitigating prominent set-shifting difficulties.” They add, “If replicated, this finding could provide critical evidence to inform educational decisions taken by the increasing number of families with children with ASD for whom the use of two or more languages is a valued practice.” 

The findings of Gonzalez-Barrero and Nadig are consistent with recent findings by Rachel Reetzke and colleagues, who found that Chinese children who spoke two or more languages did not face additional challenges when it came to learning language skills.


“Can bilingualism mitigate set-shifting difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorders?” Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero and Aparna S. Nadig, Child Development, November 7, 2017 (epub prior to print publication). Address: Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University, 2001 McGill College, 8th floor, H3A 1G1, Montreal, Canada, [email protected]

—see also—

 “Communicative development in bilingually exposed Chinese children with autism spectrum disorders,” R. Reetzke, X. Zou, L. Sheng, and N. Katsos, Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, Vol. 58, No. 3, June 2015.