It’s Not You, It’s Me: Decoding Pronoun Reversal In Autism

A somewhat light-hearted look at why pronoun confusion is common and how to help

You may have heard that pronoun reversal is a common feature of language development in autism, but did you know that it’s a common feature of language development for everybody? Most people mix up their pronouns at some point, it’s just that autistic children often do it later and for longer.

What’s a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that can be used as a label in place of a noun e.g. ‘she’ instead of Deborah or ‘it’ instead of the cat. So if you replaced the nouns with pronouns in the sentence ‘Deborah sat on the cat’, you’d get ‘She sat on it’.

Here, let Tarzan show you…

Snagglebox comic tarzan learns pronounsSnagglebox comic tarzan learns pronounsSnagglebox comic tarzan learns pronounsSnagglebox comic tarzan learns pronouns

I don’t know why I drew Tarzan with a comb-over.

Personal pronouns are a subgroup that only apply to people and things. This group can be further divided into what’s called grammatical persons. A story written in the first person means that it’s told from the character’s point of view (‘I had never seen so many umbrellas in all my life’). If someone refers to themselves in the third person it means that they use their own name in place of I or me.

Tarzan was quick to master these…

Snagglebox comic tarzan learns pronounsSnagglebox comic tarzan learns pronouns

What is pronoun reversal?

Pronoun reversal happens when you use the wrong pronoun for the situation, usually swapping first and second person pronouns like requesting a drink by saying ‘You want a drink’ instead of ‘I want a drink’. This is the kind of reversal which is common amongst autistic kids.

Why does it happen?

There are a few different theories about why this happens in autism.

It’s just a natural developmental stage

All kids mix-up pronouns but because the stage may be later and longer with autism, it’s more noticeable and takes on a greater significance.

Autistic kids can be perseverative

They often like to keep doing the same thing over and over, so mistakes can stick and take longer to correct themselves.

Autistic kids can be literal and echolalic

When we’re learning language, we repeat the sounds we hear and use them as labels. Echolalic children can be really good at repeating complex sounds, so their labels tend to be more like ‘where is your bottle’ and ‘give me the book’ – the whole phrase, complete with the incorrect pronoun.

At that stage their language skills aren’t yet mature enough to understand that ‘your shoes’ contains two separate parts (‘your’ + ‘shoes’). Later when they do learn to split it up and isolate the pronoun, they start by assuming (correctly) that the ‘your’ in ‘your shoes’ refers to them – so they use it to refer to themselves too.

Difficulty with modelling

Self-correction using feedback from the environment is often difficult for autistic kids because they don’t easily notice or copy other people’s behaviour (they might not be aware that they’re the only one calling grandma ‘him’). So again, mistakes tend to get repeated for longer because they doesn’t realise there’s anything to fix.

So what can you do to help?

Pronoun use is one of those things that usually corrects itself as language develops, but you can help things along by:

  • Showing them how to use ‘I’ when making requests – ask “What do you want?” and then prompt the correct response with “I want a…”
  • Teach explicit rules for using pronouns  – When we talk about ourselves we use ‘I’
  • Encourage them to use ‘me’ instead of their name – When looking through a photo album don’t say “That’s Dylan”, prompt them to say “That’s me
  • Hold a toy each and take it in turns to say “This is my toy”
  • Play the ‘I do’ game at the dinner table – ask a question like “Who has a fork?” or “Who wants a cookie?” Have each person answer ‘I do!’ as you go around the table.

8 September, 2012 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.