Bilingualism Can Help Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

If you’re a parent who has a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), then you’re familiar with how tough it can be for some children to unconsciously shift their attention between tasks. Shifting attention from one task to another is known as task switching or set-shifting and is an executive function that involves specific parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex. This brain structure also plays a role in the development of ASD. Recent research suggests that learning a second language may boost cognitive flexibility in areas like this and benefit those with ASD.

What is the Prefrontal Cortex?

The prefrontal cortex is part of the cortex that covers the front part of the frontal lobe. This is an area in the brain that helps you shift your focus and attention, unconsciously, and is also a brain structure that’s involved in ASD’s development. Automatically switching from one task to another without breaking concentration or re-focusing on the new task can be a tad difficult for some children with ASD. New research recently published in Child Development reports that being bilingual may possibly help children with ASD improve their ability to do just that—unconsciously shift their attention between tasks.

Being Bilingual May Increase Cognitive Flexibility

Being bilingual, and having the ability to switch between languages, may help increase cognitive flexibility, especially in children or adults with ASD. Over the past decade scholars and researchers have significantly debated whether having the ability to speak two languages improves executive functions. In fact, the term “bilingual advantage” was eventually coined because so many within the field believed that being bilingual clearly improved the executive system. With advances in technology, brain imaging studies have plainly demonstrated that bilinguals suppress their desire to use certain words from one language, in order to use words and grammar from another. In other words, speaking two languages is a workout for your brain.

Speaking Two Languages May Train the Brain Differently

Bilinguals learn a range of social tasks, such as verbal or non-verbal communication and how to read people. Some researchers think that bilingualism may even enhance some executive functions, like conflict resolution and working in a group, because switching between two languages helps the speaker see the world in different contexts.

Being Bilingual May Help Build Brain Muscle

It seems research is suggesting that speaking two languages may help flex some brain muscles and enable the brain to switch focus from one task to another without even breaking a sweat! So you can imagine, then, why so many within the field are focusing on these new research findings and why they desire to repeat studies with a larger sample size: it has huge implications for those with ASD.

Bilingualism May Even Offer Brain Protection  

Another benefit of being bilingual is that it may help protect the brain from dementia, stroke and brain injury. The thought process is similar: bilingualism boosts cognitive reserve. When executive function begins to decline, like in dementia, being bilingual seems to offer some cognitive protection by keeping parts of the brain fit. In other words, these brain structures may not age as quickly in people who are bilingual because these areas of the brain are more resilient. Whether you have ASD or not, it seems learning a second language can benefit your overall brain health. Just like briskly walking thirty minutes every day helps your heart to stay healthy, being bilingual is a way to stay cognitively fit.  

Being Bilingual Offers Those with ASD an Advantage

It’s evident that current findings may affect families when making educational decisions for their child with ASD. This research is only the beginning; hopefully, families who have a child with ASD will see more rigorous studies from scholars and scientists in the future.