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Autism Research Focuses on Difficulty in Speaking about Self and Others

What is the difference between “you” and “I?”

For some people with autism, this is not a philosophical question, but one that may plague them all of their lives, said Dr. Diane Williams, assistant professor of speech-language pathology in the Duquesne University Rangos School of Health Sciences.

Williams has used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to research how high-functioning children and adults with autism process language so she can help to improve the speech therapies provided to these clients who often are confounded by language issues.

She recently contributed to a study, published in the journal Brain, that focuses on pronoun reversal that is prevalent in autism.

Some children with autism have difficulty correctly referring to themselves as “I” and, instead, will use the word “you,” the same form of the pronoun that is used in the questions directed to them. For instance, if asked, “Do you want a cookie?” they may respond, “You want a cookie.” Or they may even refer to themselves by name, avoiding pondering the pronoun.

The issue, Williams said, involves two different areas of the brain, one in front and one in back, drawing on language skills as well as the unanticipated inclusion of perspectives in differentiating between “you” and “I.”

“To me, when we’re working on that problem, we’re very often attacking it as if it’s a problem with understanding the language—and it is that,” Williams explained.  “But it also includes the problem of perspective-taking.”

For this study, which involved researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh and was funded in part by the organization Autism Speaks and the Autism Centers of Excellence from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Williams also noted a difference in pronoun use by age.

“Pronoun reversal shows up in the speech of children with autism, but most adults with autism don’t make that kind of mistake, so they have learned to compensate and do it correctly,” she observed. However, the behavioral results from the fMRI study showed a longer processing time for adults with autism than for adults in the control group.

“So even though behaviorally, the difference was no longer evident in terms of the way they were talking, it was definitely still showing up in terms of their brain function,” Williams said.

Because of her experience in designing and implementing studies that look at language and brain function in those with autism, Williams served as an advisor to Akiko Mizuno, the lead researcher and a doctoral student at CMU.  Williams’ input was critical in determining what aspects needed to be included in the study, what stimuli should be used and how the functional data should be collected for both those with autism and the control group.

Williams, who is concluding a five-year NIH grant with her academic collaborators, hopes to garner funding that will continue her work with language and functional imaging.

She is one in a group of Duquesne researchers working to help people with autism and their families.

For more information on the speech pathology program, visit www.duq.edu/health-sciences.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.