Bilingualism and Autism

Charting the impact of bilingualism on development in children with and without autism spectrum disorders

Funded Period: January 2018 – Jan 2021
Funder: ESRC

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Many children in the UK grow up in homes where more than one language is spoken. Understanding the effect of this ‘bilingual exposure’ on children’s abilities is challenging, but research so far largely shows that learning more than one language does not hinder child development, and can be beneficial. As well as the obvious advantage of knowing two languages, bilingualism has been associated with better insight into the thoughts and feelings of others. Other skills are hotly contested by researchers but may include greater ability to switch between tasks and control behaviour. These skills are useful both in the classroom, and in the playground.

We know much less about how hearing two languages affects the development of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is associated with difficulties with communication, relating to other people and a desire for repetition and routine. Many practitioners and parents have reported that they are concerned that difficulties linked to autism, especially in communication, may be made worse if a child uses or hears more than one language. In addition, it is often assumed that speaking two languages is too taxing for a child who has an intellectual disability – which applies to about half of all children with ASD.

However these assumptions are untested. Fifty years ago, it was also assumed that growing up in a bilingual home was a bad idea for all children, and yet we now know that that is untrue. Might it therefore also be the case that hearing or speaking more than one language is also OK for children with ASD? And, more speculatively, could bilingualism even create learning opportunities in the autistic population? After all, the benefits linked to bilingualism (like better insight into other people’s minds) are in the same areas as those which are often impaired in autism.

This project will provide unique, valuable information about how bilingual exposure affects both children with autism and their non-autistic peers. We will recruit about 180 children aged 5-12 years for a comprehensive assessment at two time points, one year apart. Children will all come from bilingual households but amount and type of exposure will vary widely, as will their confidence speaking each language. This will allow us to identify the impact of hearing, learning and speaking two languages on developmental change and learning in both groups. Our tests will focus on characteristics of autism, as well as skills which could be linked to a bilingual advantage. Drawing on our own previous work in this area, in which we interviewed bilingual parents of children with autism, we will also assess the social and family consequences of bilingualism such as impact on quality of life, community integration and access to services.

In order to properly understand how bilingualism affects children with intellectual disability (who may have a very small spoken vocabulary and whose understanding may be hard to measure accurately) we will also develop new ways to measure language using recordings of eye movements instead of traditional tests.
During this project we will create:
– knowledge about the role of hearing and speaking more than one language on development and learning, in children with autism and without;
– a contribution to theories about how children learn language, and to psychological models of autism;
– evidence-based guidelines for parents, teachers and therapists;
– new ways to research language in children with learning disability

In particular, seeing the same children at two appointments, one year apart, with thorough assessment by a team of experts at each meeting, and including children with a range of types of language experience can address many of the key questions in bilingualism research. Moreover, the study will provide hints about whether exposure to more than one language at a young age could provide a natural learning opportunity for children with autism.

Planned Impact

The proposed research was motivated by a series of approaches made to Bilingualism Matters (a research and information centre at the University of Edinburgh) by both parents and practitioners asking for information about autism and bilingualism. We undertook an initial exploratory, qualitative study which has informed our research questions and study design, ensuring direct relevance for stakeholders.

Principal beneficiaries will be: 1) autistic people and their families, 2) practitioners in health, education and social care; 3) policy-makers. For each group we will ensure impact via direct engagement, knowledge exchange and open dissemination activities. Specific examples are provided below.

Autistic people and their families: We will circulate newsletters and report on specific issues via the DART blog (, reaching study participants and other local stakeholders. In addition we will recruit three stakeholder representatives to act as advisors on the project, ensuring that research is respectful and meaningful to the participating communities, and that outputs have maximum relevance to interested parties. At the mid-point and the end of the study we will host a tea party for families to share the results which will be converted into accessible information, such as infographics for key findings, and disseminated online and direct to community organisations such as Lothian Autistic Society and Scottish Autism.

Practitioners in health, education and social care: Longitudinal data is of particular relevance to clinicians working in autism assessment teams, contributing to the evidence base for appropriate therapeutic intervention. We will combine our new findings with the latest information from the literature and use this collected body of evidence to inform an online lecture designed to help practitioners make evidence-based recommendations on bilingualism for children with autism. In addition, the research team will aim to provide similar lectures, tailored to the specific professional audience, to local groups, for example at the annual NHS Lothian Community Child Health In-Service meeting. In addition, new information derived from our control group participants will feed into existing dissemination activities to mainstream practitioners (e.g. school teachers) via Bilingualism Matters. Examples include talks, workshops and downloadable factsheets.

Policy-makers: As above, the new findings provided by our research, pertaining to the consequences for bilingual exposure on typical children’s learning, social skills and community participation will feed into existing partnerships between Bilingualism Matters (BM) and national and local government. Our outputs will be targeted to those commissioning services for children with English as an additional language as well as those with additional support needs arising from autism or other neuro-developmental disorders. In addition, this project will extend existing BM relationships to include a new partnership with the Scottish government’s Autism Strategy governance group.

Project partners

This is a cross-disciplinary project by two teams at the University of Edinburgh.

  • Sue Fletcher-Watson (Principal investigator) – Deanery of Clinical Sciences
  • Antonella Sorace (Co-investigator) – School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences
  • Hugh Rabagliati (Co-Investigator) – School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences
  • Rachael Davis (Project Lead Researcher) – Deanery of Clinical Sciences

You can also read about previous work in this area: