Pronouns and Autism

One of the challenges we faced when Ryan was about 3 years old was pronoun reversal. For example, if I handed him his toy and prompted him with, “Whose toy is this?” Rather than saying “my toy,” he would reply “your toy,” although he meant “my toy.” DOC043015-04302015100234_003Similarly, if I held up an item of my own and asked the same question, he would answer “mine,” meaning “yours.” Essentially, he mixed up his pronouns.

Also, when shown a picture of himself and asked, “Who is this?” Rather than use a pronoun he would speak in the 3rd person, saying, “It’s Ryan.” Little did I know at the time, that this is a classic struggle for some children with autism.

I credit Ryan’s work with Kathy Voght, BNI Speech Therapist, and Stein Lund, at Bancroft Neurohealth in New Jersey with helping him to break through this challenge. Ryan did hundreds of drills designed to reinforce the correct use of the pronoun. Eventually, he “got it.” DOC043015-04302015100234_001

A recent study by linguistics professor Richard Meier at UT Austin, along with colleagues from Boston University, took a closer look at this phenomenon. The study aimed to compare this pronoun reversal between children with autism, and children with autism who are also deaf, in the hopes that they could uncover any possible link between the pronoun confusion and hearing pronouns used aloud. What they found was that “deaf children with autism do not tend to reverse pronouns as hearing children with autism do… However, deaf children with autism did avoid pronouns, preferring to sign names.”

Prior research attributed these pronoun “hiccups” to echolalia – automatic repetition of noises or phrases. But Meier feels that spoken language is not at the root of the issue, rather that “people with autism may differ in their experiences of selfhood.”

Of course, this is a greatly understudied area and much more research is needed. This current study is certainly a good first step in the right direction!


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2 Responses to Pronouns and Autism

  1. My son still does this. There are times now when he does get it right which makes it more confusing for me to figure our what he really means.

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