One of the obvious early signs of autism in children is pronoun reversal. All toddlers have difficulty with learning the correct usage of I, me and you. However, sometime between two-and-a-half and three years old, most kids gain a firm grasp of personal pronouns.
Specifically, they begin to understand that pronouns are referential rather than absolute words. I can be me but I can also be you, right? It all depends on the situation.
When you think about it, that’s a pretty challenging concept for someone who only recently learned to use a potty, but somehow most kids get it. If a child approaches their preschool years and is still using I, me and you interchangeably, that’s a potential sign of autism. The same is true of a child who continues to use their own name to refer to themselves in the third person.
There are a lot of theories about why autistic kids don’t make the transition to using personal pronouns at the same time or in the same way typical kids do. Some of them are disturbing and stereotypical:
autistic people don’t know that other people are actually other people
autistic people don’t have an intact sense of self
autistic children are “solitary beings” who don’t interact with others
autistic children are more egocentric than typical children
autistic children don’t pay attention to/listen to/notice/care about other people so they don’t hear how pronouns are used in daily speech
Most of those ideas are rooted in outdated theories about autism. More likely reasons for pronoun reversal in children are:
autistic children use echolalia to communicate and say “you” because they are echoing the way other people refer to them
autistic children have difficulty with pragmatics (social use of language)
Finally, since autistic children’s language development often happens at a slower or different pace, it’s possible that pronoun reversal is simply related to delayed development.
But how can we explain pronoun reversal in autistic adults? I sometimes use “you” or “we” (and occasionally “they”) when talking about myself. I even found some typical examples to share with you:
You could watch that video and say that I’m using “we” and “you” in a general way. It’s common to use “you” in a suppositional or general context. My “eating when you’re hungry” example in the video makes sense whether it’s presented using “I” or “you.” In fact, I’m not really sure who I was talking about in that case.
But when I start talking about stimming, I’m definitely thinking and talking about myself. The use of “you” in that situation also doesn’t make logical sense because I was talking to The Scientist directly–answering his question–and he doesn’t stim. So “you might be at a place where you didn’t feel comfortable stimming” or “you would have a meltdown” are both untrue and illogical. They just don’t apply to him.
I do this a lot. I use “you” and sometimes “they” or “we” when I clearly mean “I” or “me”. Why? I’m not quite sure. When I used “you” in that stimming example, it was in part echolalic. The Scientist asked me a question that included the use of “you” several times and I may have been echoing his pronoun usage. There might also be an element of poor pragmatics. My pragmatic use of language is certainly better than that of the average three-year-old, autistic or not, but it’s far from perfect.
Since MKW asked me to write about pronoun reversal, I’ve spent weeks considering the why of it.
I definitely understand the grammar rules of pronouns and I know that other people are separate from me and I’m aware of how other people use pronouns and I never use my name to refer to myself the way that autistic children sometimes do. In fact, I rarely refer to anyone by their names, but that’s a different subject (sort of).
Curiously, I’ve noticed that my reversal is always the substitution of another pronoun for “I” and never the other way around. It makes no sense at all in my head to refer to someone else as “I” and yet it seems fine to talk about myself as “you.”
Beyond simple pragmatic problems and a touch of echolalia, I came up with two theories that might explain why I reverse pronouns. Maybe it’s a way of emotionally distancing myself from a topic by contextually generalizing away from the “I” perspective. If I’m not saying “I”, it feels less personal and more amorphous. It’s a verbal sleight of hand, tricking myself, and certainly the listener, into thinking it’s not about me.
But maybe it’s not emotionally rooted. Maybe it’s more of a technical glitch. Since I decided to write about this, I’ve been paying more attention to when I reverse pronouns and noticed that I often do it when I’m talking in abstract or conceptual terms.
I never say “you went to library” when I mean “I went to the library.” If I’m talking about concrete actions, I’m very clear on which pronoun to use. But if I’m talking about something that didn’t actually happen–like the hunger and stimming analogy in the video–then the pronouns get fuzzier. It’s almost as if it doesn’t matter what the subject of the sentence is because it didn’t actually happen. I might be speaking from general personal experience, and so I’m speaking about myself, but in an abstract way.
I’ve heard other autistic adults say that they have difficulty following conversations that rely heavily on pronouns. While I don’t experience confusion with pronouns in receptive language, I suspect something similar might be happening. Names are concrete; pronouns introduce a degree of abstraction. They also call on our short term memory, which has to catalog and store references like “she refers to Peggy” and “he refers to Don” and “they refers to Peggy and Don” in order for the conversation to make sense. Most people do this automatically and only get confused if there are many people who are being referred to over the course of a convoluted tale.
Since I started drafting this post weeks ago, I’ve been paying more attention to my pronoun usage and correcting myself mid-sentence when I catch an incorrect usage. It still feels strange to substitute “I” for “you” in abstract language, but I’m determined to get the hang of it.