A speculation about Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD
A disorder with respect to discourse and the here and now?
Some children with ASD have special difficulty with pronouns. The use of pronouns involves the situation of the utterance, their indexation, whether there is any shared reference, and the way they are integrated into a sentence.
If a pronoun has a possible antecedent, as in “The mouse ran into his hole before he looked back,” where the mouse is the antecedent of his and he, he may be the mouse, but not necessarily. This may be about more than one mouse. If we say, “He looked back before the mouse ran into his hole,” he can’t be the mouse. but his can refer to the house, or to the same individual as he, or to a third individual. This is part of what is known as a ‘binding relation‘.
This raises the question whether ASD might involve a failure with respect to any of this seemingly universal formal apparatus which has long been the topic of intense study.
Carol Chomsky (1967) plotted the gradual understanding of binding relations in normally developing children from 5 to 10. They are complex, subtle, and difficult.
Long before this understanding starts to develop, children are using pronouns, but without a full understanding of binding relations.
Pronouns thus relate syntax, semantics, aspects of the discourse, and ‘pragmatics’ or the exigences of what John Langshaw Austen (1957) famously called ‘Doing things with Words’. It may be that some individuals fail to inherit at least some part of this complex apparatus. This would be expected to compromise everyday interaction – with serious consequences for the individual.
What would be the direction of causality here? Would the social aspects of ASD obstruct the development of the pragmatic apparatus? Or the other way round? I leave this as an open question.