Bilingualism, Autism and Executive Functions

The impact of bilingualism on the executive control functions of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Hello everyone!dart-me

My name is Shereen, I’m from Egypt, born and raised in the United Arab Emirates. In 2006, I started a journey of higher education. During this journey, I resided in several countries through which I acquired several multilingual and multicultural experiences. Along the way, I was introduced to a course named ‘The Psychology of Bilingualism’ which opened my eyes to the dearth of research investigating the impact of experiences like mine. Moreover, throughout my entire life, I have been actively involved in the field of autism spectrum disorders as I grew up with an inspirational younger autistic brother who became the first autistic child in the UAE to attend mainstream school and receive a high school diploma. Therefore, when the time came to select my dissertation topic, it seemed clear that I should focus on the one that directly grew out of my personal experience: bilingualism and autism. To my surprise, I found this interface received little attention in the scientific community.

What do we already know?

Speaking two languages has been shown to have a broad impact on human cognition, especially in the area of executive functions. “Executive functions” allow people to plan, organize, and complete basic activities. For example, walking down the street while talking requires a person to pay attention to his surroundings, follow pedestrian signs, formulate language, and listen/process what the conversational partner says. Coordination of all these various actions is accomplished through executive functions.

While some studies debate the existence of any cognitive advantages for bilinguals, we can all agree that findings have been focused on typically developing population. There is no evidence about the impact of bilingual experience on the executive functioning (EF) of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

There is a widespread belief that children with ASD will be “overloaded” by a second language because they have an already-impaired first language. However, there is no evidence that bilingualism negatively affects language (verbal) development children with ASD. On the contrary, they have demonstrated the capacity to function successfully as bilinguals.


Significance of this research : Consequences for Therapy, Education and Identity

Can speaking a second language improve the executive functions of children with ASD? We don’t know. It may produce an advantage, no advantage, or disadvantage for these children. The point is we need to investigate because parents, therapists, and educators make choices about language, treatment, and instruction for bilingual children with ASD every day without having sufficient research to support their decisions. These choices hold consequences for the treatment, education and formation of ethnic identities of the increasing number of bilingual children with ASD.

Keep in mind…

If a bilingual advantage is found for executive functions in ASD, bilingualism could be viewed as a kind of therapy (potential intervention) for children with ASD. This is because executive functions are impaired in ASD and are highly related to the restrictive repetitive symptoms of ASD. Therefore, a more robust and better retained executive function system can play a significant role in improving the symptoms of ASD. If no advantage is found (equivalent performance scores between bilingual and monolingual children with ASD), this demonstrates children with ASD have the capacity to function successfully as bilinguals. If a disadvantage is found, our findings will add new information that advances evidence-based best practices for the assessment and intervention of bilingual children with ASD.

shutterstock_28072937But why would speaking a second language improve our cognitive skills in the first place?

It has been proposed that people who speak two languages have two active language systems which causes them to constantly have to focus on one language, inhibit another language, or switch between the languages. Such practice creates a situation where bilinguals exercise critical cognitive skills, which makes the executive function system more robust. This is the central aspect of the bilingual experience.

What does our project aim to do?

Our study will compare bilingual and monolingual children with ASD on executive function (EF) tasks to investigate whether there are any differences between the groups. We also want to find out what are the factors associated with bilingualism that could impact our findings (socio economic status, bilingual language competence, etc.). Our participants are residents of the United Arab Emirates, a unique country that presents multilinguals in a large variety of cultural and linguistic variations. A pilot study is set to take place first in the United Kingdom to pilot appropriate measures to test executive functions in children with ASD. Note that tests used with typically developing children (previous research) might not be suitable for this population!

Where are we now?

The project is about to start! We are in the process of selecting the “right” tests to measure EF, and shortly after, participating families will be approached for our pilot study in the UK.

piggy-bank-on-a-pile-of-coinsWho is funding this project?

We are currently on the lookout for sources of funding! If you think this research is of interest to you and you would like to share any funding related details or get involved with funding, kindly get in touch with me at (boy, would I be happy to hear from you!)

Who runs this project?

The research is being led by me, Shereen Sharaan, as my PhD project, under the supervision of Sue Fletcher-Watson (Psychiatry) and Joanne Williams (Clinical Psychology) at the University of Edinburgh. For further inquiries, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

Thank you for stopping by.