Access to Multiple Speaker Contexts Predicts Pronoun Acquisition and Use in ASD
Children with ASD often display atypical patterns of pronoun development, including increased prevalence of pronoun reversals and avoidance relative to typically-developing peerse.g.1. Pronouns are difficult to acquire, in part, because of their shifting referents—I refers to myself only if I am the speaker. Contexts in which there are multiple speakers may thus be ideal for learning the meanings of personal pronouns: shifting referents for singulars (e.g. I, you) are more likely to be visible and easier to map2,3. Additionally, multiple speaker contexts are likely to provide more exposure to plural pronouns (e.g. we, us).
The goal of the study was to determine what role, if any, access to multiple speaker contexts play in the acquisition and proper use of personal pronouns in children with ASD.
Participants were 119 caregivers of children with ASD (2;2 – 5;11, 102 male) who completed a survey about their child’s language acquisition. Caregivers reported their child’s language level (one word, phrase speech, or sentence level), pronoun use, and household environment. Pronoun questions asked about the age at which children acquired 21 personal pronouns and how well they use them now (correctly, errorful, or not at all). Household environment questions included the percentage of time they spent in the presence of two or more people, which we used as a proxy for time spent in multiple speaker contexts.
Principle component analysis was conducted on the age of acquisition (AoA) of all pronouns. Results yielded three components with eigenvalues >1 (75.6% of the variance explained). Components are best described as: singular first- and second-person pronouns (e.g. I, you), singular third-person pronouns (e.g. she, him), and plural pronouns (e.g. us, them). To determine the role of multiple speaker contexts on AoA, we conducted a series of linear regressions predicting component scores from multiple speaker context time and language level (see Table 1). Findings demonstrated that language level positively predicted scores on all three components (first/second: p <.001, third: p <.001, plural: p =.003). Multiple speaker contexts additionally predicted unique variance for plural pronouns (p = .018), but not first/second (p = .8) or third (p = .48).
Point-biserial correlations were conducted to determine if access to multiple speaker contexts was related to current use (correct or errorful; those who had not yet acquired that pronoun were excluded from analysis). Access to multiple speaker contexts was positively related to the correct use of first- and second- person pronouns: me (r = .343, p = .001), my (r = .222, p = .032), you (r = .244, p = .018), your (r = .227, p = .013), yours (r = .252, p = .006).
Findings demonstrated that multiple speaker contexts play a positive role in the acquisition of personal pronouns for children with ASD. Specifically, multiple speaker contexts were related to the AoA of plural pronouns, and the correct use of first- and second- person pronouns. This finding has implications for pronoun-related interventions, as well as for theories of pronoun development more broadly.