New research from a linguistics professor and alum at UT Austin sheds light on a well-known characteristic of children with autism: their reluctance to use pronouns. Words such as “you” and “me” are sometimes reversed (for example, a child will use “you” to refer to herself) or avoided altogether.
Previous research pointed to causes stemming from language confusion or echolalia (automatic repetition of sounds). But the current study examines whether the same phenomenon occurs in children who use American Sign Language (ASL).
The difference between signed and spoken language is that pronouns are points with the index finger, rather than spoken words. Nonetheless, children with autism prefer using signed names over pronouns. For example, when shown a picture of himself, a child with autism—using spoken English or ASL—is more likely to say “that is Johnny” rather than “that is me.”
The researchers—Richard P. Meier, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin, and Aaron Shield and Helen Tager-Flusberg from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University—note that children using ASL tend not to reverse pronouns, as do children using spoken English.
“Our work suggests that the opacity of pronouns in English and other spoken languages is not at the root of the problem,” said Shield, lead author for the study. “We suspect, though more work is needed, that people with autism may differ in their experiences of selfhood.”