Children with autism spectrum disorder show pronoun reversals in interpretation

Overweg, J., Hartman, C. A. & Hendriks, P., Feb-2018, In : Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 127, 2, p. 228-238 11 p.

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Pronoun reversals, saying you when meaning I, in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are generally viewed as manifesting in early development and speech production only. This study investigates pronoun reversals in later development (age 6–12) in interpretation in 48 Dutch-speaking children with ASD and 43 typically developing (TD) peers. We contrasted children’s interpretation of I and you in indirect and direct speech reports, with the latter type requiring an additional perspective shift. To examine which cognitive processes are involved in pronoun interpretation, additional tasks were administered to measure Theory of Mind (ToM) understanding, cognitive inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. We found that children with ASD showed more problems than TD children interpreting pronouns in direct speech, resulting in pronoun reversals in interpretation. Children with ASD hardly improved with age. Older children with ASD thus showed more pronoun reversals than did their TD peers. ToM understanding, working memory, IQ, and verbal ability, but not inhibition and flexibility, were associated with pronoun interpretation. ToM understanding in particular was associated with correct pronoun interpretation in older TD children relative to younger TD children, but this improvement was not found in children with ASD. These findings indicate that pronoun reversals most likely result from perspective-shifting difficulties. We conclude that pronoun reversals are more pronounced in individuals with ASD, occur beyond early development, and require sufficient cognitive resources. The relation with ToM understanding, but not inhibition and flexibility, suggests that pronoun reversals are best classified as a social communication problem in the diagnosis of ASD.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)228-238
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Abnormal Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb-2018


  • Autism Spectrum Disorder, Theory of Mind, pronoun interpretation, pronoun reversals, perspective shifting, PERSONAL PRONOUNS, COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY, REPETITIVE BEHAVIORS, INDIRECT SPEECH, WORKING-MEMORY, COMPLEX SYNTAX, LANGUAGE, MIND, INTERFACE, PROSODY

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