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How Bilingual Environments Can Support Children with ASD?

Exposure to bilingualism can be beneficial to children with ASD, improving their social, communication, language, and cognitive skills.

“Can I speak to my child in my native language?”

This is a concern that parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) typically have, especially when bilingualism is common in Singapore. Some may believe that a bilingual environment may ‘confuse’ children and interfere with their language development. This is especially relevant to children with ASD who experience difficulties in social and communication skills that are essential for language acquisition. These difficulties include less joint attention and lower ability to mentally shift between different concepts. This makes it challenging for children with ASD to learn multiple languages.

Hence, professionals may recommend parents of children with ASD to focus on one language at home, usually the language spoken by majority of the population (i.e., English) to achieve the best learning outcome. Most of the time, however, English may not be the parents’ native language. Parents may then wish to provide a bilingual environment for their children due to various reasons, such as preserving their native language as the home language, parents being more proficient in their native language, and facilitating communication with other monolingual family members speaking only the native language. These reasons may complicate parents’ decision on whether to provide a monolingual or bilingual environment for their children with ASD. Currently, there is no hard-and-fast rule for guiding parents in this decision-making. Nonetheless, the good news is that research has found that bilingual exposure does not worsen and may even improve language and communication skills of children with ASD.

No Detrimental Effect of Bilingual Exposure

Research has shown that children with ASD have the capability to learn and master two languages. Their receptive and expressive language skills for both languages are similar to those of monolingual children with ASD as well as neurotypical monolingual and bilingual children. Besides that, the age of bilingual exposure does not affect children’s language abilities. They achieve their early language milestones at similar ages, regardless of whether the second language was introduced before or after 1 year of age. This suggests that akin to their neurotypical counterparts, with a supportive environment and adequate exposure to multiple languages, children with ASD can be bilingual.

Advantages of Bilingual Exposure

In addition, children with ASD could even benefit from bilingual environments due to enhanced social interactions, improved executive functioning, and boosted theory of mind.

Firstly, parents may be more comfortable and fluent in conversing with their child in their native language, resulting in more and higher quality parent-child interactions. Parents are more responsive and expressive, use longer and varied utterances, and are better able at communicating their emotions and having meaningful conversations with their children. Consequently, bilingual children may display greater efforts to communicate through gestures and pretend play than monolingual children, creating more opportunities for social interactions. On top of enhanced parent-child interactions, bilingual exposure facilitates social integration with other family members (especially with older generations who are more proficient in their native language) and the wider cultural community. Hence, bilingual environments provide children with ASD more chances to learn, practice and apply their language and communication skills.

Secondly, bilingual exposure may improve executive functioning among children with ASD. Individuals’ executive functioning is controlled by the frontal cortex of the brain (the part of the brain located behind the forehead). It comprises a set of mental abilities that include planning, inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Children with ASD typically have difficulties in shifting attention between different task demands (i.e., cognitive flexibility). For instance, they may find it challenging to disregard the previous instruction (e.g., sorting pictures based on shape) and switch to the new rule (e.g., sorting pictures based on colour). As bilingual children possess the ability to switch between languages, this could translate to improved cognitive flexibility. Supporting this “bilingual advantage”, research has found that bilingual children with ASD completed a sorting task with changing task instructions with greater accuracy, as compared to their monolingual peers. Furthermore, bilingual children with ASD performed better on a working memory task and had better cognitive control and inhibition than their monolingual peers. Hence, bilingual exposure may serve as a protective factor for executive function deficits among children with neurodevelopmental disorders, including ASD.

Lastly, theory of mind (ToM) of children with ASD can be improved with bilingualism. ToM refers to individuals’ ability to understand others’ perspectives and mental states, including understanding “false beliefs”. Children with ASD experience difficulties in relating to their social world and understanding false beliefs. With bilingual exposure, children with ASD may learn to constantly evaluate others’ language ability and proficiency before deciding on a language to converse in. This increases their social awareness and creates opportunities for them to practice perspective-taking. Studies have shown that bilingual children with ASD performed better on the false-belief task than monolingual children with ASD. Thus, providing bilingual environments for children with ASD can boost their social-cognitive skills, specifically theory of mind.

Recommendations for Parents

All in all, children with ASD have the potential to be bilingual. Much research has found that bilingualism do not interfere with the language development of children with ASD. In fact, bilingual exposure may even confer some advantages in terms of social, language, communication, and cognitive skills. It is important to consider the child, family, and cultural circumstances before making the important decision of providing either a monolingual or bilingual environment. There is no definitive answer and parents should discuss with professionals to provide the best learning environment for their children with ASD.


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