Children with Autism Less Likely to Use PronounsChildren with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are known to struggle with using pronouns like ‘me’ and ‘you’ correctly. Researchers have long been puzzled by this phenomenon, attributing it to an inability to switch pronouns when mimicking language and to confusion as speakers take turns in a conversation. A new study investigates how deaf children with ASD use pronouns. The study finds that children with ASD are more likely to use a name than a pronoun when identifying people. The researchers say this may be the result of a fuzzy sense of self.

The researchers evaluated the pronoun use patterns of deaf children aged 5 to 14. Fifteen of the children had ASD. Eighteen typically developing children served as controls. Each child took part in an exercise with a researcher. The researcher took a picture of the child using a tablet, then asked the child to identify the person in the photo using sign language. Then the researcher switched, taking a picture of himself and asking the child again to identify the person in the photo. Sign language is unique because the pronouns ‘me’ and ‘you’ require gesturing towards the person to whom the pronoun refers. This means that the children’s responses would not be confused as a result of mimicking or misusing language.

The typically developing children used pronouns correctly more often than the children with ASD. All of the typically developing children used ‘you’ to identify the researcher’s photo and ‘me’ to refer to their own photos. In contrast, only 50 percent of the children with ASD used ‘you’ correctly and 35 percent used ‘me’ correctly. Instead of using pronouns, the remaining children with ASD spelled out the name of the person in the photo.

The findings corroborate two other studies of hearing children with ASD who used names to refer to themselves at a similar rate to the deaf children with ASD in the present study. This indicates that issues with pronouns are not related to an inability to comprehend language. The researchers explain that using a name instead of a pronoun may be indicative of a third-person view of the world or an abnormal sense of self.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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