Me, myself and … him? her? I?

There are multiple stereotypes about autism and individuals with the disorder.  The word “autism” comes from the Greek word “autos”, which means “self.”  There is a common misconception that individuals with autism are exceedingly concerned with their personal self, the “autos,” rather than with others.  This stereotype arises from various hallmarks of autism, including the tendency of some individuals with autism to repeatedly discuss things of personal relevance, rather than that which may be of interest to a conversational partner.

One of Brainjogging’s pupils is a particularly darling six year old girl withautism, E., who has been Brainjogging since late 2009.  She continues to impress Brainjogging’s staff with her infinite capacity for spelling and pronunciation – she has a true gift with reading!  Recently, however, Brainjogging instructors have been teaching E. about personal pronouns and how to use them, as she often refers to herself in the third person or uses inappropriate second person pronouns to refer to herself.  Recent research from the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre illustrates some of the cognitive wiring that might be inhibiting E.’s reception of personal pronouns and their application in language.Cambridge scientists found that “brains of individuals with autism are less active when engaged in self-reflective thought” (Science Daily).  Their study, published in the journal Brain, provides insight into potential explanations for why individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle with social difficulties – and for why little E. finds it difficult to distinguish between herself and another individual aloud.  Researchers used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging to measure volunteers’ brain activity; half of the volunteers have an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Dr. Michael Lombardo, one of the Cambridge researchers, asked volunteers “to make judgments either about their own thoughts, opinions, preferences, or physical characteristics, or about someone else’s, in this case the Queen [of England].”  Researchers were able “to visualize differences in brain activity between those with and without autism” by scanning the volunteers’ brains as they responded to each question.  The results are stunning: the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), which activates when people think about themselves, responded equally to questions about the self and the Queen in autistic volunteers. Typical volunteers’ vMPFC was “indeed more active when [they] were asked questions about themselves compared to when they were thinking about the Queen” (Science Daily).

Lombardo states, “Within the autistic brain, regions that typically prefer self-relevant information make no distinction between thinking about the self or another person.  This is strong evidence that in the autistic brain, processing information about the self is atypical.”

If Lombardo is correct in his suggestion that “processing information about the self is atypical” for individuals with autism, then these individuals must be explicitly taught how to relate to the self versus another individual. This training must include pronouns’ significance and appropriate application.  Teaching individuals with autism how to appropriately identify the self versus others, and others versus the self, will allow them to begin to develop a sense of self; one must first recognize the self as an independent and compelling entity before being able to relate to that self.  Brainjogging strives to teach students with autism how to function successfully – little E.’s journey with pronouns is only one story of many.  Check back to read up on E.’s progress!


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