The Impact of Bilingualism on the Executive Functions of Autistic Children: A Study of English–Arabic Children

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There is evidence to suggest that certain executive functions are impaired in autistic children, contributing to many daily challenges. Regular use of two languages has the potential to positively influence executive functions, though evidence is mixed. Little is known about the impact of bilingualism on the executive functions of autistic children, with only a handful of studies published worldwide to date. This study investigated the impact of bilingualism on sustained attention, interference control, flexible switching and working memory, in Arabic–English autistic children (n = 27) and their typically developing peers (n = 66), aged 5–12 years old. Groups were matched on age, nonverbal IQ and socioeconomic status, and completed a battery of computerized tests. Results showed an advantage for bilingual autistic children relative to their monolingual peers in sustained attention, and equivalent performance between bilingual and monolingual autistic children on all other executive functions. There were no generalized positive effects of bilingualism, and typically‐developing children performed better than autistic children on all measures. The findings indicate that bilingualism does not negatively impact the executive function skills of autistic children, and that it might mitigate difficulties in sustained attention.

Lay Summary

Contrary to widespread belief, but in line with previous research, this study showed that speaking two languages did not harm thinking skills in autistic children. The thinking skills evaluated in this study included the ability to focus over a period of time, the ability to resist distractions, the ability to move back and forth between tasks, and the ability to use short‐term memory. In fact, speaking two languages might help reduce difficulties that autistic children might face when focusing over a period of time.

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