Children with autism tend to mix up personal pronouns, referring to others as ‘I’ and to themselves as ‘you.’ Some studies suggest this pronoun switching reflects a fuzzy distinction between self and others. Another possibility is that these children misuse pronouns because they have a poor grasp of language, so they resort to mimicking other people’s speech.
Pronoun reversals cropped up in less than 10 percent of the speech of children with autism, who ranged in age from 2 to 5 years. These infrequent flubs are still more common in autism than in typical children of similar ages, who reverse pronouns about 1 percent of the time.
Lead researcher Letita Naigles says she observes pronoun confusion in a specific group of children with autism: those who start using language before they grasp the intricacies of social interaction.
We asked Naigles, professor of psychological sciences and director of the Child Language Lab at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, to explain the possible causes of pronoun confusion and its significance in children with autism.
S: How do researchers explain pronoun reversal?
LN: There are two explanations: a social one and a linguistic one.