Charting the Impact of Bilingualism on Social and Communicative Development in Autistic Children

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
R. Davis1, S. Fletcher-Watson1, A. Sorace2 and H. Rabagliati1, (1)University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, (2)Department of Linguistics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Background: There is a dearth of empirical literature addressing how bilingualism might impact upon those with autism. What limited literature exists can be summarised as follows: bilingual exposure is unlikely to lead to poorer development of language in children with ASD and could provide an advantage in social and communicative domains. However, many parents are still concerned about the potentially harmful effects of bilingualism on development. It is clear that rigorous quantitative designs capturing effects which extend beyond the linguistic domain are needed to elucidate these issues.

Objectives: The overall aim of this research is to explore how bilingualism impacts on cognitive and language development for children with autism and their families. Here, we focus on the relationship between bilingual language exposure and social cognition in children with and without autism, and the factors that mediate this relationship.

Methods: We are collecting data from autistic and neurotypical children aged 5-12 who are being raised in a bilingual environment. At the point of submission, we have enrolled 45 children in the study, of which 20 have an autism diagnosis. With a visit rate of 20 children per month, we will have complete and processed data for 50 autistic and 50 neurotypical children by the end of March 2019. These will be analysed for presentation at INSAR 2019.

At each visit, children complete a battery of social cognition tasks; The Theory of Mind Task Battery, a false-belief eye-tracking paradigm and a social preference eye-tracking task. Standardised IQ assessment and language measures are included in the test battery. Additionally, parents complete a number of relevant reports including the Theory of Mind Inventory and a Bilingual Language Experience Calculator.

Results: We anticipate that directly-observed and parent-report measures of social cognition will be highly correlated, and we will first run a principal components analysis to identify one or more latent variables representing social cognitive ability, or facets thereof.

Social cognitive ability will then be analysed as follows:

1) Mean differences between groups based on diagnostic status (autistic vs neurotypical), bilingual exposure (high versus low) and the interaction term for these. We predict that autistic vs neurotypical group differences will be reduced when bilingual exposure is high.

2) Continuous relationship between bilingual exposure and social cognitive ability, taking account of IQ, language and diagnostic group.

Two-way ANCOVA’s will be used to assess all interaction contrasts, followed by pairwise post hoc comparisons.

Conclusions: This study will elucidate the effects of bilingual exposure on social cognition in autistic and neurotypical children. This study takes a step towards exploring the question of whether bilingualism can provide a naturalistic opportunity to further develop social cognitive skills. The work has implications for future clinical practise and can contribute to an evidence base for parents to make an informed choice about bilingualism for their child.