New Study: Bilingual Autistic Children Have Greater Cognitive Flexibility

being bilingual may improve an autistic child’s cognitive flexibility. Have you ever attempted to learn a new language? If so, you know what a workout it can be for your brain. In fact, it helps keep the brain healthy and has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. But did you know it can also be a way to help autistic children gain more cognitive flexibility?

Medical News Today reports on the study headed up by Prof. Aparna Nadig, from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. It focused on this question: “Can being bilingual mitigate the set-shifting (cognitive flexibility) impairment observed in children with ASD?”

Cognitive flexibility, or set-shifting, is a part of the set of cognitive processes necessary for goal-oriented problem solving called executive functions. Also included in this set of abilities are attentional control, inhibiting behavior, and working memory. The theory of executive dysfunction in autism has been proposed by some researchers as an explanation for autism. I look forward to seeing more research done on this, so we become better at managing ASD.

In the study, the researchers measured set-shifting by using a computerized dimensional change card sort (DCCS) task and by parental reports of executive functioning in daily life. (In DCCS, children are required to sort a series of bivalent test cards, first according to one dimension, e.g. color, and then according to the other, e.g. shape.)

They found that bilingual autistics did better on the DCCS task than ASD children who speak one language, but not for set-shifting in daily life. Working memory wasn’t changed either. These findings suggest that “bilingualism may mitigate some set-shifting difficulties in children with ASD”.

It’s believed that switching between languages limbers up the set-shifting performance in the brain. It makes sense since we’ve been advised to treat the brain like a muscle that improves with use. Not all researchers agree, but it’s certainly worth a try if it improves the quality of life for your ASD child. Perhaps it even sparks your imagination to think about new ways to help autistic children.

It has been my life’s mission to help the NT/AS community navigate this complicated and life-altering world. One of the best resources I offer is my Meetup group, Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD. If you’re the neurotypical member in the NT/AS family, I strongly encourage you to join us. It’s a very supportive and informative group that daily faces, and learns how to cope with, the struggles inherent in living with an Aspie. If you feel more comfortable, you can even use an alias to protect your anonymity.

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