Bilingualism, the knowledge of two or more languages, exists worldwide, and is also growing in the UK. Speaking more than one language shapes the way the mind works (called cognition), including the way the mind deals with social information (called social cognition). However, we know all this only by researching the non-autistic mind. The autistic and non-autistic minds deal differently with social information, therefore it is possible that they are also differently sensitive to the effect of bilingualism. Indeed, we know very little about how the autistic mind responds to bilingualism. This lack of knowledge is problematic as it means that parents, practitioners, and educators of autistic people who live in bilingual environments have no idea how to best support them (as we found in a previous study on parents’ perspectives).
Why did we do this study?
Our previous study “Autism, Bilingualism, and Cognition – Mind” showed that growing up bilingual benefits the social mind of autistic and non-autistic children alike, and that these benefits are still visible in adulthood. But how does it work at the brain level? Does the brain of an early bilingual (who learned a 2nd language before the age of 5) operate differently from the brain of a late bilingual (who learned a 2nd language after the age of 5) when they deal with social information? And more importantly: if they do, is it true for both autistic and non-autistic people?
What did we do?
17 autistic bilingual adults and 15 neurotypical bilingual adults from the “Autism, Bilingualism, and Cognition – Mind” study took part in this study. In each group, half the participants were early bilinguals and half were late bilinguals. They came to an appointment at the University to have an MRI scan of their brain. While in the MRI scanner they completed exercises measuring how their brain dealt with social information.
What did we find?
We found that the brains of early and late bilinguals did not work exactly the same way when dealing with social information. Importantly, we found that this was true for both autistic and non-autistic people. This means that the effect of early bilingualism on the developing brain seems to be the same for both autistic and non-autistic children (at least when it comes to the specific social ability we measured). This matches the findings we found in the previous “Autism, Bilingualism, and Cognition – Mind” study, which found similar results regarding the social mind abilities.
This information will help parents and practitioners to support autistic children growing up in bilingual environments.
We ran 4 other studies on the topic of bilingualism in autism:
- “Autism, Bilingualism, and Cognition – Mind” was the first step of this study and focused on the relationship between bilingualism and the social mind in autistic and non-autistic adults
- “Autistic bilinguals: language history and social life” focused on the diversity of bilingualism experiences of autistic bilingual adults, and on how being bilingual shaped their social life
- “Autism & Bilingualism – Parents’ perspectives” focused on the experiences of bilingual parents of autistic and non-autistic children
- “Autism, bilingualism, and childhood” focused on the development of autistic and non-autistic children growing up in bilingual environments
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.
Here are two accessible summaries of the project:
- An article for Scottish Autism Share magazine (Winter 2020): When autism meets bilingualism
- An article for The Linguist (April/May 2021, page 18-20): Autism: The benefits of being bilingual
Bérengère also presented her findings on two podcasts:
- an episode of Much Language Such Talk (Bilingualism Matters), alongside Sonny Hallett: Podcast episode here
- an episode of the Sunday Talks podcast: Youtube video here
Who conducted and funded the project?
This study was conducted by Bérengère Digard for her PhD, with the guidance of her supervisors Sue Fletcher-Watson, Andrew Stanfield, and Antonella Sorace, and with the help of Cyril Pernet and the radiographers at the Edinburgh Imaging Facility QMRI. The project was funded by the Patrick Wild Centre.