Pronoun reversal is a language quirk observed in the speech of autistic children. It indicates that a child is beginning to learn language, but has not yet learned how to use pronouns correctly. It is expected to diminish as a child continues hearing and learning language.
Pronoun reversal has confused neurotypical researchers, who assume that autistic children do not understand the difference between themselves and others.
"Pronoun reversal is when the person with autism confuses first and second person pronouns in speech. (Autism and Language: Description and Diagnosis) He will use "you" to refer to him or herself, and use "I" to refer to his or her listener. This might be a sign that children with autism fail to identify themselves as separate from the person with whom they are speaking or might just be experiencing linguistic confusion."
Autistic writer Cynthia Kim describes pronoun reversal as an issue that arises as part of language development. The child understands the general meaning of the phrase, but does not yet know what the individual words mean.
"Imagine I said to you “blerg ick gump?” and then gave you a delicious treat. A few hours, later you decide you want another one of those yummy things so you walk over to the spot in the kitchen where you know the yummy thing comes from and say “blerg ick gump?” You have no idea what the words mean–and you certainly don’t know that you’re supposed to transform my “blerg ick gump?” into the correctly worded “norkle ick gump?” All you know for sure is that the last time I said “blerg ick gump?” a treat materialized, so what the heck, maybe it will work again."
Pronoun reversal is more common in children, and it is likely to go away as the child's mastery of language improves. Adults can help the autistic child use correct pronouns through teaching and plenty of exposure to spoken language.
Pronoun reversal often happens with the child repeating something that others have said about them in a given situation. This is the child's way of communicating that the same situation exists.
Parent: Is something wrong, Johnny?
Johnny: He is stressed. He needs quiet time.
It can cause some confusion if the listener does not understand what pronoun reversal is.
Brother: Let me know if you need help with that.
Sister: You need help with that.
Brother: What? I don't need help. I was asking about you.
Sister: You need help with that!
Helping Children with Pronoun Reversal
Kim states that children can learn to use language correctly through modeling. For example, a parent can hold out a cookie, say "I want a cookie, please," and encourage the child to repeat after them. With practice, the child will learn the appropriate phrase.
Immersion in the English language will also help children learn to use pronouns correctly. Parents should talk frequently to the child in sentences, and provide plenty of opportunities for the child to hear people talking and participate in conversations. Just as children's reading skills improve when they read and are read to, children's speaking skills improve when they speak and are spoken to.
Use in Later Years
In some cases, older autistic people who usually use pronouns appropriately may lapse into pronoun reversal. This may indicate that they are stressed or tired and could use a break. They may be relying upon a script that was not meant to be used this way.
In these cases, the autistic person knows how to use pronouns well, but lacks the energy to think too hard about it. Loved ones may find it best not to address the grammatical errors, and instead focus on deciphering the meaning of the autistic person's words.
Laquisha: Aimee, you've been picking at your steak for the last five minutes. Is something wrong?
Aimee: Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodbourne illness.
Laquisha: So your steak is undercooked?
Laquisha: Okay, I'll microwave it for you.
If an autistic person who ordinarily speaks well lapses into poorer speech over a long-term period, this may be a sign of autistic burnout. Loved ones should help the autistic person find out what is wearing them out, and get medical help if it is caused by an illness (e.g. anxiety).