Analysis of Plural Personal Pronoun Use May Help Diagnose Autism in Girls

Various analyses of the language use of different demographics have shown that different people all use language differently. If you listen closely enough (or use a computer program), you can learn a lot about a person by the specific words they choose to use. And the type of word that can tell you the most about a particular person may very well be the pronoun.

Pronouns, specifically personal pronouns (e.g. I, me, my, you, your, he, his, her, hers, it, its, we, us, they, them) tell us about relationships between the speaker and the rest of the world. Whether a person talks about their classmates using the pronouns “we” or “they,” for example, can tell us a lot about whether the speaker feels included in that group of people or more socially distanced from them.

To gain insight into how people with autism relate and communicate differently with the world around them, Julia Parish-Morris, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues studied how children with and without autism spoke.

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They studied 17 girls and 33 boys with autism, and 15 girls and 22 boys without the condition, all aged 8 to 17 and matched for age and IQ. The children with autism were also matched for their levels of social impairment. The researchers recorded unscripted conversations in which their subjects spoke candidly about other people in an informal “getting to know you” interview with a research assistant.

A computer program then transcribed their speech and counted the number of times each person used a plural personal pronoun (such as we, us, they, or them) or a social word (such as family or friends). These numbers were compared to the overall number of words each participant used to get a percentage of their total words that were social words or plural personal pronouns.

“Pronouns can give hints about social embeddedness or the sense of social belonging, which matters with conditions with social challenges such as autism,” says Parish-Morris.

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What they found was that girls on the autism spectrum use plural personal pronouns about twice as often as boys on the spectrum, and they use social words more too. However, their relationship to non-autistic girls was a bit different. Autistic girls used plural personal pronouns and social words less often than their neurotypical counterparts, but they used the words “they” and “them” more than neurotypical girls, demonstrating their awareness of their own social exclusion from certain groups and activities.

“Saying ‘we did this and that’ is a very different frame of reference from saying ‘they did this or that,'” Parish-Morris says.

An important takeaway here is that children with autism tend to use fewer social words and plural personal pronouns than their non-autistic counterparts of the same sex. If the same holds true for very young children, these speech patterns may be a useful red flag in spotting autism, especially in girls, who are often more difficult to diagnose.

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“If girls with autism are not properly understood, then these girls may not get access to the proper resources they need early in life to get the support they need to flourish and reach their full potential,” says Parish-Morris.

The failure to recognize autism at a young age can lead to extra difficulty in school and social situations and increased risk of mental health problems like anxiety and depression. In some cases, lack of a diagnosis can even lead to suicide in young people with autism. Finding new ways to diagnose hard-to-spot cases, therefore, is very important.

Next, the researchers hope to study how children with and without autism speak to other children rather than to adults. The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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