Narrative Abilities in Bilingual and Monolingual Children with ASD

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)


Background: Narrative skills are the product of the interaction of our cognitive, linguistic, and social-cultural knowledge (Losh & Capps, 2003). They allow us to examine how the mind makes sense of the self and the world, and therefore, research has been dedicated to studying narrative abilities in children with atypical cognitive development, especially children with autism (e.g., Diehl et al., 2006). Children with autism have been shown to have difficulty in organizing a coherent story and in explaining the mental states of characters (e.g., Losh & Capps, 2003). Moreover, given that narrative practices are culturally grounded, researchers are also interested in probing the effect of linguistic input and cultural context on narrative development (Heath, 1983; Wang & Leichtman, 2000). As narrative skills have been identified as strong predictors of later language and literary achievement for monolingual children (Paul & Smith, 1993), researchers have also been studying narrative development in a bilingual context (e.g., Uchikoshi, 2000). However, there has been virtually no research done on narrative abilities in bilingual children with autism.

Objectives: This study compared the narrative abilities between three groups of children-- typically developing Mandarin-English bilingual children, Mandarin-English bilingual children with autism, and English monolingual children with autism. The main objectives are: (1) to fill in the gap in current knowledge on narrative competence in bilingual children with autism, and (2) to study potential benefits or problems bilingualism can exert on the communicative competence of children with autism.

Methods: Nine typically developing bilingual children, 10 high-functioning bilingual children with autism, and 13 high-functioning English monolingual children with autism who are verbal participated in the study. The participants with autism were matched on mental age, and vocabulary size. Narratives were elicited using the wordless picture book, Frog, Where Are You? (Mayer, 1969), and the bilingual children were asked to generate a story in both languages. The narratives were analyzed according to their global structure, local linguistic structure, and the child’s ability to provide evaluative comments.

Results: Comparisons between the monolingual children with autism and bilingual children with autism revealed no group differences. Comparisons between the two bilingual groups on the global structure revealed that bilingual children with autism included fewer story episodes and fewer types of orientations. However, both groups were able to grasp the theme of the story. With regards to the local structure, bilingual children with autism told stories of similar length, but employed less complex syntax and fewer types of conjunction, and also made more reference errors than their typically developing peers. Finally, the two groups did not differ significantly on the evaluative aspects of narratives.

Conclusions: This study was one of the first ones to investigate narrative abilities in bilingual children with autism. Results of this study demonstrated that bilingual children with autism did find certain aspects of narrative challenging, but their performance was comparable to that of monolingual children with autism, suggesting that bilingualism does not further impede language development in this population and that verbal children with autism have the capacity to be bilingual.