April 23, 2018

Does being bilingual have any effect on autism?

Last updated on March 3, 2021

Recent research (2017) has come out suggesting that being bilingual may help autistic children by increasing their cognitive flexibility.[1]Can Bilingualism Mitigate Set‐Shifting Difficulties in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders? (Gonzalez‐Barrero & Nadig, 2017)


Autistic children have a challenge with an executive function known as cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is made up of task switching (unconscious switching from one task to another) and cognitive switching (conscious switching from one task to another).

Children who were bilingual were more easily able to shift tasks in a computer-generated test. The tests required children to sort cards with blue bunnies or red sailboats via colour first and then via shape on the second trial.[2]Being bilingual may help autistic children (Nadig, 2018) | McGill

The results don’t necessarily translate into daily life, however; the researchers will follow these children over the next three to five years, and watch to see how being bilingual affects their autism compared to monolingual children.

This study investigated the effects of bilingualism on set-shifting and working memory in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Bilinguals with ASD were predicted to display a specific bilingual advantage in set-shifting, but not working memory, relative to monolinguals with ASD.

Forty 6- to 9-year-old children participated (20 ASD, 20 typically-developing). Set-shifting was measured using a computerized dimensional change card sort (DCCS) task, and by parent report of executive functioning in daily life. Results showed an advantage for bilingual relative to monolingual children with ASD on the DCCS task, but not for set-shifting in daily life. Working memory was similar for bilinguals and monolinguals with ASD.

These findings suggest that bilingualism may mitigate some set-shifting difficulties in children with ASD.[3]Can Bilingualism Mitigate Set‐Shifting Difficulties in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders? (Gonzalez‐Barrero & Nadig, 2017)

This article
was written by:
dr-natalie-engelbrecht
I’m a dually licensed registered psychotherapist and naturopathic doctor, and a Canadian leader in trauma, PTSD, and integrative medicine strictly informed by scientific research.And not only do I happen to be autistic, but my autism plays a significant role in who I am as a doctor and how I interact with and care for my patients and clients.

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