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Part Two – Dyslexia, Autism and Language Processing

This is Part Two of an article published by Care2.com a few years back. Haven’t read Part One yet? Click here to access the article.

Another study in the journal Brain used brain imaging to investigate another language problem many autistic children, Charlie included, have reversing pronouns. The Brain study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and found that the connections between the front and posterior parts of the brain in autistic individuals is affected. Says Science Daily.

The results revealed a significantly diminished synchronization in autism between a frontal area (the right anterior insula) and a posterior area (precuneus) during pronoun use in the autism group. The participants with autism also were slower and less accurate in their behavioral processing of the pronouns. In particular, the synchronization was lower in autistic participants’ brains between the right anterior insula and precuneus when answering a question that contained the pronoun “you,” querying something about the participant’s view.

“Shifting from one pronoun to another, depending on who the speaker is, constitutes a challenge not just for children with autism but also for adults with high-functioning autism, particularly when referring to one’s self,” [Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI)] said. “The functional collaboration of two brain areas may play a critical role for perspective shifting by supporting an attention shift between oneself and others.

“Pronoun reversals also characterize an atypical understanding of the social world in autism. The ability to flexibly shift viewpoints is vital to social communication, so the autistic impairment affects not just language but social communication,” Just added.

The researchers also suggest that understanding of social interactions is affected — that is, when an autistic child’s response to “do you want something?” is “you want something,” the child is confused about who exactly is doing the wanting, with resulting further confusion about what to do.

After reading the Brain study, it occurred to me that not only does Charlie tend to leave out pronouns when he talks; we have a tendency to drop them when we speak to him and to rely on context to communicate. Both the Science study on dyslexia and Brain study on pronomial reversals in autism are reminders that, when people struggle to speak, it’s often due to how their brains are “wired” and that it would be well for the rest of us to listen with especial care not only to what they say, but to how we are communicating, too, and to make accommodations — far easier for me to change what I’m saying than it is for Charlie.