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?
There are many different kinds of bilingualism, in autistic and non-autistic populations alike (as we found in a previous study). However, we don’t know if these different bilingualism experiences all shape the social mind in the same way. We don’t know either if all the activities run by the social mind are all equally sensitive to the bilingualism effect. More importantly, we don’t know whether this relationship between bilingualism and the social mind also exists in autism.
What did we do?
39 autistic bilingual adults and 96 neurotypical bilingual adults took part in the study. They completed an online questionnaire focused on their bilingualism profile (i.e. the number of languages they knew, when they started learning these languages, how well they knew the language, etc…). They also came to an appointment at the University to complete several exercises measuring how their social mind worked. With all this information we were able to see both in the autistic and the non-autistic mind what it was about bilingualism that influenced the social mind, and what types of mental activity were shaped by bilingualism.
What did we find?
We found that not all bilingual experiences could shape the social mind, and we found that not all activities run by the social mind could be shaped by bilingualism. More precisely, we found that the “bilingual advantage” on the social mind was linked to having learned a second language early in childhood. However, it is possible that for other mental skills, it is another aspect of bilingualism that matters. Therefore, bilingualism can still shape the mind overall, even when the second language is learned later in life.
The most important result is that this relationship between early bilingualism and the social mind was the same in autistic and non-autistic people. This means that growing up bilingual benefits the social mind of autistic and non-autistic children alike, and that these benefits are still visible in adulthood. 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 – Brain” was the next step of this study and focused on the influence of early bilingualism on the networks of the social brain, 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
Bérengère also gave a summary of her findings during the Autism & Bilingualism: Practitioner Webinar she organised in 2021. The full video recording of the webinar is available here: Webinar page.
The findings were also presented at several conferences, with the talk and posters listed below:
- A poster at the Flux Congress, September 2019: poster
- A poster at the Autism Europe Congress, September 2019: poster
- A poster at the Bilingualism Matters Symposium, September 2019: poster
- A talk at the Bilingualism Matters Symposium, September 2019
Who conducted and funded the project?
This study was conducted by Bérengère Digard for her PhD, with the help of her supervisors Sue Fletcher-Watson, Andrew Stanfield, and Antonella Sorace. The project was funded by the Patrick Wild Centre.