Bilingualism, Autism and the Brain

Bilingualism, Autism and the Brain

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I am Bérengère, and I come from Lyon (France). I like food and wee bookshops. I am currently organizing in Edinburgh a pub-based science festival called Pint of Science. On top of that, I am also really interested in bilingualism and autism. I even recently decided to take this interest to the next level, and turned it into a PhD research project!

Bilingualism & the Brain

Every skill we master shapes our brain, and bilingualism is no exception. Of course, bilingualism impacts functions related to language, such as the distinction between sounds, or the ability to juggle between complex grammar rules. But the influence of bilingualism goes further. Recently, studies have suggested that it could even impact social cognitive processes beyond language.

Ever heard of “Social Cognition”?

“I think you think that this research project is going to be very exciting”. What I just did is called being overly optimistic perspective taking: I took your perspective, I put myself in your mental shoes. This “perspective taking” can be about what someone else can see, think, or feel. This is part of something broader called “social cognition”.

Social cognition refers to all the thought processes we use when facing a social situation: understanding social rules, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or recognising someone’s emotion just by looking at their face. It appears that within the general population, bilinguals do better in social cognition than monolinguals, no matter what their native languages. Studies even show that brain areas involved in social cognition have different sizes and activity levels for monolinguals and bilinguals.

People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD for short) have difficulty with social cognitive processes. The brain regions involved in these processes show differences in size and activity compared to the population without ASD (also called “typically-developed”), possibly explaining their poor performances in social cognition assessments in the lab.

Autism, Social cognition & … Bilingualism?

Quite often, in the mind of the general public, someone with autism uses limited language. Based on this assumption, the idea of a bilingual with autism seems a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? As it turns out, it is not. Autism prevalence is growing, the bilingualism-exposed population is growing, and therefore the population of autistic people exposed to bilingualism is growing. At the moment, people with ASD, and the family and carers of children with autism exposed to bilingualism, have no guidance regarding the best course of action for the child: to be raised in a single-language environment or, on the contrary, to be stimulated with several languages. No general studies as yet address this particular matter, but single-case and small sample studies on children with autism who grew up in a bilingual environment show no delay in language or cognitive development.

Exchanging Ideas - Argument and Debate Concept. Source: http://www.stockvault.net/photo/196023/exchanging-ideas---argument-and-debate-concept

Exchanging Ideas. Source: http://www.stockvault.net/photo/196023/exchanging-ideas—argument-and-debate-concept

So what it this all about?

In the present situation, we know that social cognition abilities, which can be a real source of struggle for people with autism, can be enhanced by bilingualism in the typically-developed population. My idea is to check whether bilingualism could also help autistic people to improve these abilities.

The first step is to launch the ABC – Autism & Bilingualism Census across the United-Kingdom. This online survey will give us vital information regarding this very unique population, such as its size, and demographic information, and how they use their languages. The results of this survey will be made available to the public via a flyer circulated to all relevant institutions. The ABC is now LIVE! Scroll down for more information in the section “Where are we now?”.

The second part of my project is to define social cognitive processes in the bilingual brain. For this I will recruit typically-developed bilingual adults and assess their linguistic abilities and exposure, as well as their social cognitive abilities with behavioural tests.

The third part of the project addresses the question of these social cognitive processes in the autistic bilingual brain. This time I will recruit autistic bilingual adults who will be assessed in the same way as the typically-developed participants.

For both the second and third parts, the population of interest is multilingual, but the quantity and quality of multilingual exposure is flexible, as are the languages in question. My aim is to see how these different exposures impact social cognition in both populations.

The last steps will be to gather neuroimaging data of the participants, to link their linguistic history and social cognitive abilities to the anatomy and activity of their brain.

As previously, my findings will be made available to the public to offer guidance to families and medical professionals concerned by bilingualism in autism.

Overall, this project aims to:

  • Characterising precisely the social cognition abilities, as well as the anatomy and activity of the relevant brain networks, in both typically-developed and autistic bilinguals
  • Comparing the impact of bilingualism upon typically-developed and autistic participants.
  • Provide evidence-based information regarding the impact of bilingualism upon people with autism and offer guidance regarding the use of bilingualism in their daily life.

Where are we now?

The ABC – Autism and Bilingualism Census is now closed, and I am about to analyse the results! We are all so excited!

More than 300 people took part, and this is truly heart-warming. I thank each person who took and/or shared the ABC for supporting me in this adventure!

Left: Recruitment flyer of the Autism & Bilingualism Census. Credits: Bérengère Digard.

Below: Me celebrating the 300th ABC participant at Portobello Beach (Edinburgh) – 25th May 2017. Credits: Mariane Gallet.

 

Who runs the project?

This is I, Bérengère Digard! I am leading this project for my PhD in Psychiatry, under the supervision of Sue Fletcher-Watson, Andrew Stanfield and Antonella Sorace, at the University of Edinburgh. The Patrick Wild Centre finances the behavioural side of the project, but we need help and funding to launch the neuroimaging part of the study (and my living expenses). If you are interested in supporting me in this study, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Can you get involved?

Yes!

If you wish to participate to this study, please get in touch! Whether your love story with bilingualism has lasted your entire life or is quite recent; whether it started in a classroom or in a far-away land; whether you are fluent in all languages or no, as long as your brain is the host of several languages you are always welcome to participate.

To enrol and/or exchange ideas on the project (or maybe help to fund it, who knows?), all you have to do is send me an email at the address below.

Contact details:

To get in touch with me, please contact b.g.digard@sms.ed.ac.uk.