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Learning a second language could help autistic children

Autistic children who learn to speak another language may find it easier to switch tasks, a study has found.

Youngsters on the spectrum often have a hard time ‘switching gears’ and chopping their attention between tasks.

But new Canadian research, dubbed ‘surprising’ and ‘exciting’, shows being bilingual could increase their cognitive flexibility. 

Parents are often told not to bother teaching their child a second language if they have ASD out of fears it will add to their difficulties.  

Lead author Professor Aparna Nadig, based at McGill University in Montreal, said: ‘This is a novel and surprising finding.

Youngsters on the spectrum often have a hard time ‘switching gears’ and chopping their attention between tasks. But new Canadian research shows being bilingual could help

‘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… 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.’

He added that ‘it’s very exciting to find that it does’. The study involved 40 children in a French speaking part of Canada who were all on the spectrum.

Autism: The facts 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the umbrella term for conditions that affect social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.

Charities estimate there is around 700,000 people who are on the autism spectrum in the UK. In the US, it is as high as 3.5 million. 

Figures suggest four boys are diagnosed with autism – which often causes sufferers to struggle with social interaction – to every one girl.  

There’s no ‘cure’ for ASD, but speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and educational support are available to help children and parents.


It is a question that has long stumped researchers.

But in October light was shed on why boys are more at risk of autism.

University of Iowa scientists believed they collected the first ever evidence of a ‘protective effect’ in females.

Trials on mice showed males who had a known genetic cause of autism showed signs of being on the spectrum. 

However, females weren’t affected.

This genetic deletion, or a missing stretch of DNA, plays a role in one in every 200 cases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), experts claimed. 

The new study, published in the journal Child Development, suggests that learning a second language could also help curb symptoms.

Dr Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero, co-author, added: ‘It is critical to have more sound evidence for families to use when making important educational and child-rearing decisions.’

She added that parents are ‘often advised’ that exposing a child with ASD to more than one language will just worsen their language problems.

How was the study carried out? 

Youngsters involved in the experiment were between the ages of six and nine. They were divided into four groups. 

Twenty children were bilingual, with half having ASD. The other twenty children, of which half also had ASD, could only speak one language.  

They were all asked to sort blue rabbits and red boats that appeared on a computer screen by colour.

They were then asked to switch and sort the same objects instead by their shape – regardless of their colour.   

The study found bilingual children with ASD performed significantly better than their monolingual peers when it came to the more complex part.

Future research 

Despite the small sample size, the researchers believed the ‘bilingual advantage’ that they saw in children with ASD has highly significant implications. 

Further studies are planned to follow the children with ASD that they tested over the next three-five years to see how they develop.

They aim to see whether the bilingual advantage they observed in the lab may also be observed in daily life as the children age. 


When it comes to lessening the effects of Alzheimer’s, people who have spoken two languages since childhood delay the progress of the disease by 5 years, a study suggested last January.

A Vita-Salute San Raffaele University study of 85 Alzheimer’s patients found that being bilingual helped protect against the ravages of the disease.

If found the brains of people who spoke two languages had greater connectivity in key brain areas – particularly in the part of the brain which governs ‘executive control’.

The effect was greater in the people who had greater ability in the languages – with those who had used both languages more over their lifetimes showing less severe symptoms than those who had used them less.

It is the latest finding that lends support to the theory of ‘cognitive reserve’ – that while Alzheimer’s cannot be cured, people who have had greater levels of education are able to overcome the wasting of the brain caused by Alzheimer’s for longer.