Sign-Language Use Sheds New Light on ASD-Related Language Delay A new study examining pronoun use in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are native users of American Sign Language could cause scientists to re-evaluate theories behind a well-known characteristic: pronoun difficulties. Struggles with or complete avoidance of pronouns, such as “me” and “you,” has long been documented as ... Research in Brief
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Research in Brief  |   June 01, 2015
Sign-Language Use Sheds New Light on ASD-Related Language Delay
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Audiologic / Aural Rehabilitation / Augmentative & Alternative Communication / Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / Language Disorders / Research in Brief
Research in Brief   |   June 01, 2015
Sign-Language Use Sheds New Light on ASD-Related Language Delay
The ASHA Leader, June 2015, Vol. 20, 17. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB5.20062015.17
The ASHA Leader, June 2015, Vol. 20, 17. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB5.20062015.17
A new study examining pronoun use in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who are native users of American Sign Language could cause scientists to re-evaluate theories behind a well-known characteristic: pronoun difficulties.
Struggles with or complete avoidance of pronouns, such as “me” and “you,” has long been documented as a symptom of ASD in childhood. For example, children with ASD will sometimes use “you” when referring to themselves. But research from the University of Texas at Austin—conducted by UT Austin linguistics professor Richard P. Meier, and Aaron Shield and Helen Tager-Flusberg of Boston University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences—takes a first-ever look at whether the same tendency is present in native-signing children with ASD.
The study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, shows both similarities and differences in pronoun use in signing and speaking by children with ASD—and contrasts with previous findings suggesting that pronoun problems in ASD stem from language confusion or echolalia.
In sign language, users communicate pronouns either by pointing at themselves or at others, which differs from spoken pronoun words that don’t inherently provide any information about who is referenced. But the study’s deaf children with ASD still chose not to use pronouns, instead opting to sign names, including their own.

The study shows both similarities and differences in pronoun use in signing and speaking by children with ASD—and contrasts with previous findings suggesting that pronoun problems in ASD stem from language confusion or echolalia.

However, the children who were deaf weren’t likely to reverse pronouns in the way their hearing counterparts frequently do, which could have implications for clinical screenings and diagnostic tests for ASD that often inquire about pronoun reversal.
“Our work suggests that the opacity of pronouns in English and other spoken languages is not at the root of the problem,” Shield says. “We suspect, though more work is needed, that people with autism may differ in their experiences of selfhood.”
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June 2015
Volume 20, Issue 6