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A question about autism

Autistic Spectrum Disorder, ASD, is many-sided. Amongst other things it limits social skills and the ability to cope with changes of routine. Some children with ASD have difficulty with pronouns like I and me and you. This raises the question whether such cases might involve a failure with respect to the necessary formal apparatus for pronouns which seem to be found in all languages.

If a pronoun has a possible antecedent, as in “The mouse ran into his hole before he looked back.” he may be the mouse, but not necessarily. If we say, “He looked back before the mouse ran into his hole,” he can’t be the mouse. This is part of what is known as a binding relation. Carol Chomsky (1967) plotted the gradual understanding of binding relations in normally developing children from 5 to 10.

Long before this understanding starts to develop, children are using pronouns, but without a full understanding of the binding system. As well as pronouns the binding system seems to be universal across languages.

Pronouns thus relate syntax, semantics, aspects of the discourse, and ‘pragmatics’ or the exigences of what John Langshaw Austen (1957) 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.