Researchers have shown that bilingualism can reduce symptoms of autism in children by compensating for deficits in theory of mind and executive functioning.
Autism is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting over one in a hundred children. The condition is characterized by difficulty in what is known as ‘theory of mind’ and executive functioning. This makes it difficult for people with autism to engage in social interactions, particularly in understanding other peoples’ points of view, desires and emotions.
Previous studies on bilingualism have shown that children without autism who speak multiple languages tend to have increased theory of mind and executive functioning abilities when compared to children who speak only one language. The researchers, therefore, wondered whether bilingualism could help autistic children in the same way.
For their study, they followed 103 autistic children aged between 6 and 15, of whom 43 were bilingual. Each was grouped according to their age, gender and intensity of their autistic disorder, and then given various tasks to assess their theory of mind and executive functioning.
In doing so, they found that bilingual children were able to correctly answer 76% of questions on theory of mind whereas monolingual children answered 57% correctly. As for questions on executive functioning, bilingual children gave twice the correct answers of monolingual children.
To answer why this may be the case, the researchers said that bilingualism requires children to work on skills directly related to theory of mind ie. speaking a language that the other person would understand. Executive functioning abilities are then used to focus attention on one language and inhibit the second.
“Indeed, as this neurodevelopmental disorder often affects language acquisition, bilingual families tend to give up the use of one of the two languages, so as not to exacerbate the learning process.” says Stéphanie Durrleman, one of the authors behind the study.
“However, it is now clear that far from putting autistic children in difficulty bilingualism can, on the contrary, help these children to overcome several aspects of their disorder, serving as a kind of natural therapy.”