New study explores language issues, autism and 'sense of self'


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A new study investigates what happens in the brains of people with autism who want to say "you" in a sentence when they should say "I."

The inability to shift pronouns is sometimes seen in normal children as they grow up, but it happens frequently in children with autism. Adults with autism don't often make the mistake, but the study, published in the journal Brain, found that it takes them longer to determine which pronoun to use.

For example, if a child with autism is asked, "Do you want a glass of milk?" he will often respond, "You want a glass of milk" instead of "I want a glass of milk."

"One of the most enigmatic, strange things that children with autism do is they use the wrong pronoun," said researcher Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's an unusual thing, and it's kind of hard to explain."

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities sought to determine what happens in the brain when adults with autism have to change pronouns, which is a linguistic process called deictic shifting.

In the study, adults with high-functioning autism were shown a book with an image of a carrot on one page and a house on the other. A woman held the book with the image of the house facing her and the image of the carrot facing the participant and asked, "What can I see now?"

Once they understood the sentence, the participants had to press a button indicating the correct response, in this case, "You can see the house."

They were then asked, "What can you see?" The participants then had to press a button indicating the correct response: "I can see the carrot."

It took the participants with autism significantly longer to determine the correct answer than the participants without autism, and researchers were able to see, via functional magnetic resonance imaging, that there were poorer connections between two key areas in the front and back of the autistic participants' brains.

An area in the back of the brain called the precuneus helps us understand the position and actions of someone else in comparison with ourselves, the study said. An area in the front of the brain known as the anterior insula is important for linking sensations such as heart rate or pain with our feelings, and thus contributes to our sense of who we are.

Having a "sense of self" requires both of those areas to work together, Mr. Just said. But in people with autism, the areas don't communicate properly, and they often have trouble understanding the emotions and perspectives of other people.

"Many kinds of thoughts require this frontal-posterior coordination," Mr. Just said. Behaviors that don't require that connection, such as spatial reasoning, tend not to be a problem in people with autism, he said.

When the people with autism in the study were asked to do the book exercise by simply answering, "Who can see the carrot now?" or "Who can see the house now?" they didn't take much longer to answer than the participants without autism.

The difference stemmed from the fact that they weren't being asked to shift their perspective from an "other" pronoun to themselves, as when they were asked, "What are you looking at now?"

That shows the pronoun switching in people with autism is not a language issue -- It's their understanding of how they connect themselves to the world, said Akiko Mizuno, a researcher and graduate student at CMU.

"The language issue is embedded in their difficulty in understanding their relationship to self and other," she said.

That finding fits with a lot of previous research on people with autism.

In a famous study of children with autism, British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen found they had much more difficulty with the so-called "Sally-Ann" story.

In that tale, Sally puts a ball in a basket and leaves the room. Ann then takes the ball and puts it in an adjacent box. Children are then asked to say where Sally thinks the ball will be when she returns.

Most children, including some with Down syndrome, understood that Sally would look in the basket for the ball because that is where she left it. But the children with autism thought she would look in the box because that is where they knew the ball was located.

Just as in that experiment, the pronoun test showed that people with autism struggle to differentiate between their own perspectives and those of other people.

"It's the underlying concept of self that's disturbed," Mr. Just said.


Annie Tubbs: atubbs@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613.


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