Speaking more than one language may offer a significant advantage for children with autism that goes well beyond communication, a new study suggests.

Kids on the spectrum who are bilingual appear to be able to switch gears more quickly than their peers who speak only a single language, according to findings published recently in the journal Child Development.

“This is a novel and surprising finding,” said Aparna Nadig of McGill University in Montreal who is a senior author of the study. “Some researchers have argued convincingly that living as a bilingual person and having to switch languages unconsciously to respond to the linguistic context in which the communication is taking place increases cognitive flexibility. But no one has yet published research that clearly demonstrates that this advantage may also extend to children on the autism spectrum.”

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Researchers asked 40 children ages 6 to 9 — half of whom had autism — to do a variety of computer-based exercises. Each group was split evenly between bilingual kids and those who spoke just one language.

The children were asked to sort objects on the screen by color and then by shape. The bilingual kids with autism outperformed the other children on the spectrum in their ability to shift from one task to the other, the study found.

Going forward the researchers said they plan to follow the children with autism who were part of the study to see whether the differences observed in the test will hold true in real-life applications as they grow up.

“It is critical to have more sound evidence for families to use when making important educational and child-rearing decisions, since they are often advised that exposing a child with ASD to more than one language will just worsen their language difficulties,” said Ana Maria Gonzalez-Barrero who led the study while at McGill University.