Autism, bilingualism, and childhood


Bilingualism, the knowledge of two or more languages, exists worldwide, and is also growing in the UK. It is now widely agreed that growing up bilingual has no negative consequences for neurotypical children. Speaking more than one language has been linked with a number of cognitive and social benefits such as advantages in communication skills, perspective taking and flexible thinking. It has also been linked with a slight delay in acquiring language.


Why are we doing this study?

However, we don’t know how growing up in a bilingual environment influences the development of children with autism. Indeed, because we know very little about the relationship between bilingualism and autism, parents and practitioners are often worried that bilingualism might cause developmental delays for children with autism (as showed in a previous bilingualism study we ran [link to Autism & Bilingualism – Parents’ perspectives page]). With this study we want to know if these worries are founded. We want to better understand how autistic and non-autistic bilingual children grow up, focusing on their language, mental, and social development.


What are we doing?

Autistic and non-autistic children aged between 5 and 12, and growing up in a multilingual environment took part in the study. We visited them in their home, and they played several games measuring their language, mental, and social skills. We met them a first time in 2019, and we are now meeting them again in 2020 to measure how the abilities measured have changed overtime.


What is happening at the moment?

We are almost done with the second wave of appointments with the children, and the analysis of the data is ongoing.


What will the results tell us?

With this study we will know how bilingualism shapes different aspects of development (language, mental, and social abilities). Indeed, it is possible that different abilities respond differently to the influence of autism. We will also know how if this bilingualism effect is the same for autistic and non-autistic children. Importantly, we will know if autistic children can experience the same bilingualism benefits as non-autistic children, or if, as feared by parents and practitioners, bilingualism can cause difficulties for these children.


What’s next?

We ran 4 other studies on the topic of bilingualism in autism:

The field of “bilingualism in autism” research is still extremely new, and we have just scratched the surface. There is still a lot to do to better understand the experience of autistic bilinguals.



You can read more about the study on this page, and watch a video summary of the project here. You can also access the recruitment flyer here.


Who is conducting and funding the project?

This study was run by Rachael Davis, Sue Fletcher-Watson, Hugh Rabagliati,and Antonella Sorace. It was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.