We speak to many parents that have concerns about their ASD child learning a second language. We understand how a parent must feel, their child may be struggling with coins and money in maths or gentle brush strokes in art – and now there are plans for them to learn a new language too!??!
However there is no research out there showing that language learning and ASD is a bad thing. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. Recent research shows that children with ASD may actually benefit from learning a new language or from being bilingual.
In Canada a first study of its kind was completed, and the results of which were very interesting. It found that learning a new language or being bilingual could help ASD children improve their cognitive flexibility. This improvement from learning a new language was seen in multiple areas, including attention control, inhibiting behaviour and working memory.
It is expected that this improvement in the ASD child’s cognitive flexibility is due to switching in the mind. When you learn or speak a different language you are shifting between your own language and the new language in your head. Over time this mental switch happens more smoothly and quicker. This switching of linguistic systems helps to limber up overall cognitive performance.
ASD children will often find it harder to switch from one thing to another and need a narrower focus, a set schedule and for things to remain unchanged. However, learning a new language helps to smooth this mental switch and this skill will transfer into making everyday ‘switches’ easier.
The study was based on a very small amount of children, but the results still speak for themselves. There were 40 children selected for the study. 10 of the children were typically developing monolingual children. Another 10 were typically developing bilingual children. 10 of the children were diagnosed with ASD and were monolinguals. The final 10 children were diagnosed with ASD and were bilinguals.
Each child in the study completed a computer based task which involved sorting objects. They were shown a selection of objects and had to sort them by colour. After a while the children were then asked to sort the objects by shape.
It is ‘task switching’ of this sort that can often be challenging for ASD children. However, it was found that bilingual children that were on the spectrum found the cognitive switching easier than ASD children that were monolingual.
There are other studies that show an ASD child that learns a new language will do better than ASD children with only one language in some social and communication skills as well as flexible thinking. This may be because ASD children learning a new language have the ability to use more gestures to communicate.
Teaching an ASD child a new language is a really good way of explaining that people are from all different backgrounds, with different beliefs, different rules and different languages.
If you’d like to know more about the positive links between ASD and language learning then please feel free to contact us directly. We would be happy to talk to you about your child and your concerns.