What is the Influence of Bilingualism on Development for Autistic and Non-Autistic Children?

Post by Dr Rachael Davis

Here at the University of Edinburgh, our new research project is underway to find out whether hearing or speaking more than one language influences children’s development, and importantly, whether these effects are different for autistic and non-autistic children.

Why are we doing this research? There are two main reasons. First, although there is general agreement from research that growing up in a bilingual environment does not have a negative influence on skills such as language development (and could even provide an advantage across a range of social and communication areas), there is less clarity around other so-called ‘bilingual advantages’, for example, the ability to switch between tasks efficiently. We want to better understand these effects of bilingualism by looking in detail how cognitive skills change over time, and how growing up hearing or speaking more than one language can affect these changes across development.

Now we come to our second goal of the study. In addition to the controversies about bilingualism in typical development, there are very few studies that assess the influence of bilingualism in autistic children. What limited literature exists can be summarised as follows: It is unlikely that growing up in a bilingual environment leads to poorer development of language in autistic children and it may also provide advantages in areas like gesture-development, among other communicative skills.

In spite of this, an interview study from our lab shows that many parents are worried about the possible impact of bilingualism on language development. These concerns are not supported by the current (but limited) evidence from research and fail to take into consideration significant factors such as community integration, quality of life and family bonds.

Our research responds directly to these concerns by exploring the impact of bilingualism not just on cognitive development, but on cultural and family factors. We hope this will contribute to a research base to enable families to make an informed decision about speaking more than one language with their child.

The important bits:

We’re travelling UK-wide to meet autistic and neurotypical children aged 5-12 who are being raised hearing or speaking more than one language. There are a few important things to know about our study:

  • We’re visiting families at two timepoints – once in 2019, and then a year later. We’re doing this so that we can see measure developmental changes across time.
  • We’re collecting data about a variety of different abilities including children’s language, social and communicative and executive function skills. We’re also looking at factors like family wellbeing, the importance of cultural identity, and community and religious factors. We’re using a range of toys, computer games and researcher-led assessments to make sure that we can see every child who wants to take part.
  • We’re seeing children with varying levels of bilingual experience. Here are some examples:
    • If a child speaks English at school but speaks a different language at home
    • If one parent speaks English but speaks a different language
    • If a parent doesn’t speak a second language but other family members like grandparent’s do
    • If a parent gave up speaking their native language when thier child received their autism diagnosis
    • If a child speaks very little
    • If a child is monolingual but their parents are not
  • We think it’s really important to look at how the level of bilingual exposure affect development in different ways, so we’re asking families about quantity and quality of language exposure.
  • We have an advisory board as part of our study, who provide an invaluable community perspective. This means that we receive input and feedback at every step of the way from members of the autistic community, parents of autistic and bilingual children, and practitioners and researchers, who have shaped our study design and recruitment plan based on the priorities of the communities they represent. We have tried to ensure that every stage of the project is aligned with the needs of the communities we are working with and for.

This research will allow us to answer important questions about how a bilingual environment affects language and cognitive development. But we need children and families to take part to make this happen!

What to do if you want to take part

If you think this study sounds interesting, then please get in touch! We will be visiting families throughout 2019 and would love to hear from as many families as we can. For more information, please send us an email at autism@ed.ac.uk, visit www.dart.ed.ac.uk or watch the project video below.