Personal pronoun reversal (PPR) or avoidance, occurs in the first and second person perspective, and according to the DSM-5 (2013) is one of the speech hallmarks of a child with ASD. When I point to myself and say, “I am Kelly,” a child on the spectrum might see the referent that is being pointed at, me, and attach the word “I” to it, and thus, when pointing to another person, where a typically developing child would say “you”, a child on the spectrum might say “I”. In his seminal article, Kanner (1943) saw this as echolalic in nature, but more recent research has disagreed with this. Dale and Crain-Thoreson (1993) found a negative correlation between echolalia and PPR.
While echolalia may account for some instances of PPR, according to Lee, Hobson and Chiat (1994) one of the things that make pronouns so complex is their deictic nature. Deixis is the pointing or specifying function of some words (such as definite articles and demonstrative pronouns) whose denotation changes from one discourse to another. The pronoun varies by who is speaking. If one says, “it is my dog,” another would say, “It is your dog,” but in speaking to a third person, would say, “It is his/her dog”. Lee et al. found that when asking a child with ASD, “what am I wearing?”, there were few errors, showing pronoun comprehension. It is in production where errors are frequently seen.
One thing teachers of English learners on the spectrum must be aware of, is that the presence of personal pronoun reversal could be the result of the disability rather than an error in language learning.
This YouTube video shows a mother working on pronouns with her daughter; this is an activity that an ESL teacher could easily adapt to work with a child who has issues with pronouns.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Dale, P. S., & Crain-Thoreson, C. (1993). Pronoun reversals: Who, when and why?. Journal of Child Language, 20 (3): 573-589.
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbance of affective contact. Nervous Children, (2), 217-250.
Lee, A., Hobson, R. P., & Chiat, S. (1994). I, you, me, and autism: An experimental study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(2), 155-178.