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More than one in one hundred children is affected by the so-called autism spectrum disorder, one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. These individuals have problems with the “theory of mind”, i.e., interacting with others and being able to recognize and understand their feelings, wishes, ideas, intentions, expectations, opinions and motives. When autistic children grow up in bilingual families, parents often tend to focus on only one of the two languages and forgo the other so as not to overtax their children’s communicative abilities.

But now together with colleagues from the Universities of Thessaly (Greece) and Cambridge (UK), a researcher from the University of Geneva (UNIGE, Switzerland) has now shown that just the opposite helps autistic children. Bilingualism makes it easier for them to partially compensate for deficits in theory of mind.

The advantages of bilingualism

The intensity of symptoms varies widely among different people, explains Stéphanie Durrleman, a researcher in the Department of Linguistics at the UNIGE Faculty of Arts and co-author of the study. “But what children with autism have in common is that they have difficulties putting themselves in the place of their interlocutor, focusing on the latter’s point of view and thus disengaging their attention from their own perspective,” she points out. Autism, then, would affect not only skills such as understanding others’ beliefs, emotions, intentions and desires, but often also so-called executive functions, including attention.

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    Previous studies have already shown that children without autism who grow up multilingual have better skills in both theory of mind and executive functions compared to monolingual children. “Bilingualism therefore seems to bring benefits precisely where the autistic child has difficulties,” says Stéphanie Durrleman. “We therefore wondered whether bilingual autistic children manage to mitigate the difficulties of their neurodevelopmental disorder by using two languages every day.”

    Brain training

    For their study, the researchers examined 103 autistic children between the ages of 6 and 15, 43 of whom were bilingual. “In order to observe the real effects of bilingualism on their socio-communicative skills, we grouped them according to their age, gender and the intensity of their autistic disorder,” explains Eleni Peristeri, a researcher at the University of Thessaly’s Faculty of Medicine and co-author of the study.
    The children had to solve various tasks to prove their abilities in theory of mind and executive functions. In the process, the bilingual children consistently scored higher than their monolingual peers. “On tasks relating to theory of mind, i.e., their ability to understand another person’s behavior by putting themselves in their place, the bilingual children gave 76% correct answers, compared with 57% for the monolingual children,” says the Greek researcher. The same was seen in executive functions. Here, scores for correct answers were twice as high for the bilingual children as for the monolingual ones.

    “Bilingualism requires the child to work first on skills directly related to theory of mind, i.e., he or she must constantly be concerned with the knowledge of others: Does the person I am speaking to speak Greek or Albanian?” says Eleni Peristeri, explaining the big difference in the results. “In what language should I talk to him or her? Then, in a second phase, the child uses his executive functions by focusing his attention on one language, while inhibiting the second.” That, he said, is real brain training that affects the very deficits associated with autistic disorder. “From our evaluations, we can clearly see that bilingualism is very beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorders,” Stéphanie Durrleman enthuses.

    Better skills despite socioeconomic disadvantage

    As part of the study, the children’s socioeconomic background was also recorded to ensure that it did not play a role in the results. However, it found that the bilingual children mostly lived in lower socioeconomic environments than the monolingual children. “We can therefore affirm that benefits in theory of mind and executive functions emerge in bilinguals, even when there is a socio-economic disadvantage,” Durrleman says.

    These findings are important for the care of children diagnosed with autism, the Swiss researcher emphasizes. “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.,” she says. “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.”

    The results of this study were published in the journal Autism Research.

    Also of interest:
    Insecurity stemming from corona crisis hit adults with autism extra hard
    How does the brain decide what’s important? (German only)
    Human brain recognizes music faster than smartphone apps (German only)
    Synapses in 3D: Looking into people’s brains (German only)

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    About the author

    Author profile picture Petra Wiesmayer is a journalist and author who has conducted countless interviews with high-profile individuals and researched and written general entertainment, motorsports, and science articles for international publications. She is fascinated by technology that could shape the future of mankind and enjoys reading and writing about it.As an avid science fiction fan she is fascinated by technology that could shape the future of mankind and enjoys reading and writing about it.