A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

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

Summer, 2021 | Number 3, Volume 35

Does being bilingual benefit children with ASD?

While many educators believe it may be harder for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to cope in bilingual households, a new study suggests that bilingualism actually offers these children significant advantages. 

Research involving neurotypical children indicates that bilingual children have better “theory of mind”—that is, the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. In addition, they appear to have better executive function skills such as planning, impulse control, and flexible thinking. Noting that these skills are difficult for children with ASD to master, Eleni Peristeri and colleagues wondered if growing up in a bilingual household might be beneficial for them. 

Peristeri and her team followed 103 children with ASD between 7 and 15 years of age. Of the group, 43 were bilingual. The researchers grouped the children based on their age, gender, and severity of ASD symptoms. 

Asking the participants to perform tasks that measured their theory of mind and executive function skills, the researchers found that the bilingual children scored significantly higher than the children who spoke only one language. “On tasks relating to theory of mind, i.e. their ability to understand another person’s behavior by putting themselves in their place, the bilingual children gave 76% correct answers, compared with 57% for the monolingual children,” Peristeri says. The bilingual children’s scores on the executive function tests were twice as high as the scores for monolingual children. 

Peristeri suggests several reasons for these findings. “Bilingualism requires the child to work first on skills directly related to theory of mind,” she says, “i.e., he or she must constantly be concerned with the knowledge of others: Does the person I am speaking to speak Greek or Albanian? In what language should I talk to him or her? Then, in a second phase, the child uses his executive functions by focusing his attention on one language, while inhibiting the second.” 

Study coauthor Stephanie Durrleman notes that bilingual families often give up using one language in order to help their children with ASD. “However,” she says, “it is now clear that far from putting autistic children in difficulty bilingualism can, on the contrary, help these children to overcome several aspects of their disorder, serving as a kind of natural therapy,”


Citations

“The cognitive benefits of bilingualism in autism spectrum disorder: Is theory of mind boosted and by which underlying factors?,” Eleni Peristeri, Eleni Baldimtsi, Margreet Vogelzang, Maria Tsimpli, and Stephanie Durrleman, Autism Research, May 19, 2021 (online). Address: Eleni Peristeri, Department of Neurology, University Hospital of Larissa, Faculty of Medicine, University of Thessaly, Biopolis, Mezourlo Hill, Larissa 41100, Greece, [email protected]

—and— 

“Bilingualism as a natural therapy for autistic children,” news release, University of Geneva, June 3, 2021.