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Bilingualism predicts theory of mind in autism (Cummings et al., 2024)

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posted on 2024-05-03, 20:01 authored by Kaitlin K. Cummings, Rachel K. Greene, Paul Cernasov, Dang Dang Delia Kan, Julia Parish-Morris, Gabriel S. Dichter, Jessica L. Kinard

Purpose: This study examined the impact of bilingualism on affective theory of mind (ToM) and social prioritization (SP) among autistic adults compared to neurotypical comparison participants.

Method: Fifty-two (25 autistic, 27 neurotypical) adult participants (ages 21–35 years) with varying second language (L2) experience, ranging from monolingual to bilingual, completed an affective ToM task. A subset of this sample also completed a dynamic eye-tracking task designed to capture differences in time spent looking at social aspects of a scene (SP). Four language groups were compared on task performance (monolingual autism and neurotypical, bilingual autism and neurotypical), followed by analyses examining the contribution of L2 experience, autism characteristics, and social face prioritization on affective ToM, controlling for verbal IQ. Finally, we conducted an analysis to identify the contribution of SP on affective ToM when moderated by autism status and L2 experience, controlling for verbal IQ.

Results: The monolingual autism group performed significantly worse than the other three groups (bilingual autism, monolingual neurotypical, and bilingual neurotypical) on the affective ToM task; however, there were no significant differences between the bilingual autism group compared to the monolingual and bilingual neurotypical groups. For autistic individuals, affective ToM capabilities were positively associated with both verbal IQ and L2 experience but did not relate to autism characteristics or SP during eye tracking. Neurotypical participants showed greater SP during the eye-tracking task, and SP did not relate to L2 or autism characteristics for autistic individuals. SP and verbal IQ predicted affective ToM performance across autism and neurotypical groups, but this relationship was moderated by L2 experience; SP more strongly predicted affective ToM performance among participants with lower L2 experience (e.g., monolingual) and had less of an impact for those with higher L2 experience.

Conclusion: This study provides support for a bilingual advantage in affective ToM for autistic individuals.

Supplemental Material S1. Supporting Information for “Bilingualism Predicts Theory of Mind in Autistic Adults.”

Cummings, K. K., Greene, R. K., Cernasov, P., Kan, D. D. D., Parish-Morris, J., Dichter, G. S., & Kinard, J. L. (2024). Bilingualism predicts affective theory of mind in autistic adults. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 67(6), 1785–1802.


This research was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grant R21 MH110933. Assistance with recruitment was provided by the Clinical Translational Core of the UNC Intellectual Developmental Disabilities Research Center Grant P50 HD103573 (awarded to Gabriel Dichter). Funding sources had no direct involvement in the study design, collection, analysis, or interpretation of data; the writing of the article; or the decision to submit the article for publication.