Bilingualism, the knowledge of two or more languages, exists worldwide, and is also growing in the UK. There are many ways to become bilingual, from growing up in a bilingual family to teaching oneself several languages. Each of these ways impacts the way people interact with each other and lead their social life.
Why did we do this study?
We know very little about the experience of autistic bilingual people, compared to what we know from the general population. With this study, we wanted to know more about autistic bilingual people, especially regarding their experience of becoming bilingual, and regarding the way bilingualism had influenced their social life.
What did we do?
297 autistic adults completed an online survey, the Autism and Bilingualism Census, and answered questions about their language profile (i.e. the number of languages they knew, when they started learning these languages, how well they knew the language, etc…), and about their social life quality. They also answered several questions about their experience of being bilingual.
What did we find?
We found that there is a great diversity of language experiences in the autistic bilingual population, just like in the non-autistic bilingual population. We also found that bilingualism could shape the social life quality of autistic people. These are important results as they show that contrary to what we thought, there are many ways for autistic people to encounter a new language, learn it, and use it in their daily life. This study also shows that there is no research at all on the experience of many autistic bilingual people, and they may not have access to the support and resources they need.
We ran 4 other studies on the topic of bilingualism in autism:
- “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
- “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
- “Autism, Bilingualism, and Cognition – Brain” focused on the influence of early bilingualism on the networks of the social brain, in autistic and non-autistic adults
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 have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and are available at:
- Digard, B. G., Sorace, A., Stanfield, A., & Fletcher-Watson, S.(2020). Bilingualism in autism: Language learning profiles and social experiences. Autism, 136236132093784. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361320937845
The findings were also presented at several conferences, with the talk and posters listed below:
- A talk at the Polyglot Conference, October 2017: video
- A poster at the International Society for Autism Research Conference, May 2018: poster
- A talk at the Autistica Discover Conference, September 2018
- A poster at the International Society for Autism Research Conference, May 2019: poster
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.