First published in Cracking the Enigma, August 2011
“You made a circle”, exclaimed Ethan, looking up from his drawing.
“You did make a circle”, his mum acknowledged, ignoring the fact that, not for the first time, Ethan had reversed the pronoun, saying “you” when he should have said “I”.
Ethan was one of six children from Providence, Rhode Island taking part in a study of child language development. Every couple of weeks, a researcher from Brown University would visit him and his mum at home, record, and then transcribe their conversations in painstaking detail. The transcriptions would show that Ethan was a prolific reverser of pronouns; frequently saying “you” when he meant “I” and “your” instead of “my” or “mine”. This curious habit began as soon as pronouns entered his vocabulary and he was still reversing pronouns when, just before his third birthday, the study came to an end.
Ethan’s language skills were otherwise exceptionally good. When assessed at 18 months, his scores put him in the top 1% for children his age. However, some years after the study finished, it transpired that Ethan had Asperger syndrome. Pronoun reversal is common amongst children on the autism spectrum. Leo Kanner noted as much in the first systematic description of autism and, to this day, it is considered an important marker when conferring an autism diagnosis. But the underlying cause of this highly specific problem remains something of a mystery. Ethan’s diagnosis made sense of his pronoun reversal, but it didn’t exactly explain it.
While pronoun reversal is relatively common in autism, it certainly isn’t unique to the disorder. Deaf children in particular are prone to reversal, despite the fact that in many sign languages, pronouns simply involve pointing to the person in question. And while most typically developing children appear to have little difficulty with pronouns, there have also been several case reports of children who go through a prolonged phase of pronoun reversal. By coincidence, Naima, one of the five other children in the Providence study, was one such child.
Aware of the serendipitous nature of their data, two of the researchers, Karen Evans and Katherine Demuth, returned to their transcriptions. Forensically re-examining the evidence, they tried to work out why the two children had encountered such difficulties with pronouns. The results of their enquiries provide some intriguing insights into the multiple challenges facing both typically and atypically developing linguists.
Personal pronouns represent an unusual problem for the young language learner. Most words they encounter will have a constant reference, at least within the context of the ongoing conversation. “Mummy” will refer to their own mother. “Dog” will refer to the animal that is sat on the carpet right in front of them. But the meanings of “I” and “you” change, depending on who it is that is speaking. My “you” is your “me”.
In Naima’s case, it seems that she simply failed to grasp this concept, thinking that “you” was really just another name for herself. It wasn’t that she sometimes got it right and sometimes got it wrong. Between the ages of 19 and 28 months, virtually every time she used “you” or “your”, she was actually referring to herself, sometimes with amusing results:
Naima: “I think you peed in your diaper.”
Mother: “Just now?”
Naima: “I think you did.”
Then, all of a sudden, something clicked. In Naima’s final two sessions at 29 and 30 months, every single pronoun was used correctly. But why did she make this mistake in the first place? And what happened for the penny to drop?
Yuriko Oshima-Takane, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, has argued that children can only deduce the principles of pronoun use by listening in on other people’s conversations. Pronoun reversers, she suggests, are children who, for one reason or another, have missed out on this vital linguistic experience.
Naima appears to be a perfect illustration of this theory. She was an only child at the time of the study and spent most of her time alone with either her mother or her father. As a result, most of the speech she heard was directed at her. This in turn meant that almost every time she heard the word “you” it referred to her. It would be perfectly understandable if she thought of “you” as simply another name for herself.
Evans and Demuth note that the abrupt end of Naima’s pronoun reversal coincided with a family holiday. They speculate that the time spent with both mum and dad is what gave her the learning experience necessary to finally grasp the concept of “you”.
Oshima-Takane suggests a similar explanation for the high rates of pronoun reversal in deaf and autistic children. For deaf kids, having to rely on visual communication or poor quality auditory input makes it much more difficult to follow other people’s conversations. For autistic kids, the argument goes, the problem is more that they are disinterested in other people and so fail to pay attention to their conversations. Like Naima, both groups of children will only learn from speech that directly engages them and will mistakenly jump to the conclusion that “you” only ever refers to themselves.
So could this explain Ethan’s difficulties? Evans and Demuth suggest not, pointing out that, although he often used “you” to refer to himself, he used it appropriately on enough occasions to demonstrate that he’d grasped the concept.
Kanner’s explanation for pronoun reversal in autism came from another observation – that children with autism often repeat entire phrases verbatim, inappropriately and out of context. This so-called ‘echolalia’ would lead to reversals as the pronouns are repeated exactly as heard. British child psychiatrist, Michael Rutter gave the example of a hungry child requesting a biscuit by echoing the phrase “Do you want a biscuit?” The pronoun was reversed but the biscuit was obtained.
Consistent with this explanation, Evans and Demuth noted that Ethan was indeed most likely to reverse pronouns when imitating an utterance that somebody else had previously made. “Dad gave me that ring”, for example, was clearly a reversal but was almost certainly something his mum had said previously.
However, even using the most generous criteria, imitations accounted for less than half of Ethan’s recorded reversals. What’s more, in contrast to the child in Rutter’s example, he actually made relatively few reversals during requests. For example, when asking for his bottle, he said “I want bottle”, using “I” correctly (even though the sentence wasn’t fully formed).
Further analyses revealed two final clues. First, as well as using “you” to refer to himself, Ethan occasionally used “I” to refer to other people (something Naima very rarely did). Second, reversed pronouns were more likely to occur in sentences that contained multiple pronouns. For example, at aged 22 months, Ethan was recorded saying “I got you out” when he should have said “You got me out”.
These observations suggest that his problem lay, not in understanding the principles of which pronoun to use, but in applying those principles during a conversation. His problems were pragmatic rather than conceptual. More precisely, Evans and Demuth propose that Ethan’s pronoun reversal reflected difficulty in referential perspective taking – in choosing the right word given who was being referred to at any given moment in the conversation.
This account of Ethan’s pronoun reversal fits nicely with research suggesting that autistic children have difficulty with other linguistic terms that depend on the speaker’s perspective (Bartolucci & Albers, 1974).
In an intriguing study published last year, Peter Hobson and colleagues at University College London (Hobson et al. 2010) found that children with autism were competent at using “here” and “there” to refer to locations near or far from themselves. However, the same children struggled to follow similar instructions given by two other people – a task that required them to consider the speaker’s perspective to work out which locations “here” and “there” referred to.
Whether or not Evans and Demuth have solved the mystery of why these two particular children reversed their pronouns, their investigations demonstrate that, if you scratch beneath the surface, even a phenomenon as striking and specific as reversal of first- and second-person pronouns can have quite different underlying causes. In Naima’s case, it seems she misunderstood the meaning of “you”. In Ethan’s case, he appears to have grasped the concept but lacked the wherewithal to consistently choose the correct pronoun during a conversation.
Ethan’s case is particularly intriguing in the light of his Asperger syndrome diagnosis. However, it would be unwise to assume that he is representative of all individuals on the autism spectrum. His difficulties do not seem to be explicable in terms of either a lack of relevant linguistic experience or a tendency to echo phrases verbatim, but these may still be contributory factors, and could well explain pronoun reversal in other autistic individuals. Indeed, as noted earlier, Ethan’s error patterns are quite different to some other examples in the autism literature.
Perhaps the reason pronoun reversal is so common in autism is that there are several factors associated with autism that each contribute to the difficulties. Working out why a particular child reverses pronouns may require investigation on a case-by-case basis.