MU Connect issue 7 (page 18)

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Leveraging bilingualism may improve comprehension and expression in
autistic children

In Hong Kong, children generally receive bilingual education in Chinese and English. But for autistic children, who have delayed language development as well as difficulties in understanding and responding to others, will having to learn another language in addition to their mother tongue place an extra burden on their language development?

With support from Heep Hong Society, Dr Emily Ge Haoyan, Assistant Professor in the School of Education and Languages, and her research team recently recruited more than 40 local autistic children aged five to nine to participate in language and cognitive tests. The team used standardised assessment tools and interactive language games to assess the children's ability to understand and express main points in conversations. The research found that learning both Cantonese and English did not negatively affect autistic children's performance in Cantonese vocabulary, prosody, syntax or other aspects of the language. In general, bilingual autistic children performed on par with their monolingual peers in language tests, and they even performed better when the focus of the questions was the object of a sentence.

“The research findings show that exposure to two typologically different languages, such as Cantonese and English, does not adversely affect first language development in autistic children,” says Dr Ge.“On the contrary, bilingualism may compensate for their weak ability to integrate information globally, making it easier for them to concentrate in conversation.” She adds that the team's findings may potentially contribute to the development of more effective intervention and rehabilitation programmes in bilingual environments, and provide essential guidance for parents and professionals.