Return To HOME Page

Pronoun Confusion… And The Loss Of Self…


I am happy to report that Zachary's speech is just exploding... and I honestly think a lot of that has to do with him finally understanding how pronouns work.   I never would have thought pronouns could be so critical to speech... but the more I worked on the issue of pronoun confusion in Zachary, the more I came to believe that this issue of pronoun confusion was truly one of the reasons Zachary's conversation had taken such a long time to materialize.  You simply can not have conversation without an understanding of correct pronoun usage.  

For example... look at this simple sentence... "I want you to give me that."   In only 7 words, 4 of them are pronouns... and 3 - I, you, me - are what I refer to as the "flipping pronouns"... they change based on WHO IS DOING THE TALKING... and this was a huge issue for Zachary... a child who truly lived "via reference communication"... and if the "references" - the pronouns - were "moving targets", how could he possibly understand how they worked unless this was explained to him.

I know for a fact that proper pronoun usage played a huge role in his development of conversation.   I could give many examples of this... but, over and over I saw Zachary "testing out pronoun usage".   For example, when he saw his father at the counter one day, out of the blue he asked:   "Is dad him or his?".   My reply to him was that he could be both, for example, I could say, "that sweater is his" or I could say "that sweater belongs to him".   I knew Zachary understood.   That same week, as we were all playing on the bed in my bedroom, he stated to me as he talked about his father... "I love him and him loves me"... again, I corrected him right away and stated: "Zachary, you say, "I love him and he loves me"... right away, he then turned to his sister who was also in the room and said:  "I love her and she loves me".  

I would also notice him as he played with the dogs... he would say the same thing using different pronouns... again, testing "proper pronoun usage".  For example, one day we had both dogs in the house (we now had 2 Australian Shepherds).   They were laying just in front of the door and my daughter Anika was petting them.   Zachary went to see the dogs too.   He started almost right away... testing pronouns again.   He said the following:   "That is Patchees and Freckles"... then he continued... "These are two dogs"... and again he continued... "Patches has 4 legs"... "that dog has four legs"... "it has four legs"... "these are four legs"... and on and on he went... saying basically the same thing but using different pronouns.   This was clearly what he was doing... testing pronoun usage... of that, there could be absolutely no doubt.  

This kind of activity went on for several days... and since that time, in about the last 2 months, Zachary's conversation skills have now exploded... actual conversation... with perfect responses and sentences... and he seems to go out of his way to respond in sentences instead of simply one or two word answers as he had so often done in the past.   So, this looks like another huge hump we are finally overcoming... and I am absolutely convinced that it is the failure to understand proper pronoun usage that is the hurdle that keeps many of these children from moving more quickly to actual conversation... you simply can not have conversation - or an understanding of "self" -  without the proper understanding of pronouns!  How can I possibly know who "I am" if the "I", "me" and "you" are constantly "changing"... moving references that the child with autism has such a hard time understanding.   There was no doubt in my mind that Zachary lived "by reference"... and as such, there absolutely had to be an understanding of pronouns and how they worked.   

How can one speak without understanding pronouns like:

I, me, you, my, mine, he, she, him, her, his, hers, your, yours, its, their, theirs, who, whose, whom, they, them, we, anybody, anyone, another, each, either, everybody, everyone, nobody, no one, neither, one, other, others, someone, somebody, many, both, few, several, all, any, some, none, this, that, those, these, which, what, whoever, whomever, whatever, whichever, etc.

These were all words that we used so much in speech... and I very much suspected children with autism did not understand what these words meant or represented, because, again, they were "moving targets"...and could mean "one thing in one instance" and "something completely different in another situation"!   And that, in my opinion, was the key to "conversation"... understanding how pronouns worked.   You just can not have "conversation" without an understanding of how these words work and what they represent... and how "what they represent" can change.  Now that Zachary understood pronouns, his speech/conversation was simply exploding!  

I provided a great deal on this issue in "Book 4" along with exercises I had done with Zachary in this area.   I'd also recommend getting the "30th Anniversary School House Rock video" as it has stuff on there that also helped Zachary understand "pronouns"... just a nice little song that helps put the message across using music... and given understanding of language and processing of music were co-located in the temporal lobe, I certainly could see why songs in this video were so appealing to Zachary and so easily helped him to understand key concepts... including parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc.... all were touched on in this video).  You could also buy this on DVD or get computer software from school house rock songs also.  The software was by Creative Wonders.

I had purchased a copy of the video at Walmart .  It was called The Best Of School House Rock.  You could also purchase this via the School House Rock website:

I truly now I believed that what so many saw as "not that big an issue" - pronoun confusion - is an absolutely huge issue not only for obtaining actual conversation in these children but also in areas dealing with the "concept of self"!   :o)


Below were words I had previously written in another book on the subject of pronoun confusion and how something that appeared “so trivial” could have such major implications when it came to understanding not only language, but understanding one’s concept of self as well.  The area of “pronoun confusion” was such a critical issue to both language and the concept of self, that I replicated in full a section from my third book below.  Persons who had read my third book, Breaking The Code:  Putting Pieces In Place! could simply skip over this section, although pronoun confusion was so critical to the concept of self and other materials in this text that I strongly urged all parents to read this short section – even if only “review” for some.  

It was a well documented fact that persons with autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s had difficulty with the use of pronouns – words such as “I, me, and you” – especially - appeared very confusing to them. 

In my opinion, “pronoun confusion” could very much be explained by the need for labels in everything in persons having these disorders in order to help them “break the code” – to help them understand their world. 

Given that, it was perfectly understandable that those with these disorders would have difficulty with pronouns.   Pronouns were "labels" that changed based on who was doing the talking.

For example, take the question:  “Does this belong to me or you?”   It was when I had asked Zachary this question that I truly came to understand the issue with pronouns.   If I pointed to myself as I asked that question, I labeled myself as "me" and if I pointed to you as I asked that question, you were labeled as "you".   Those were "the labels" given when the question was asked.    I was labeled as “me” and Zachary understood himself to be labeled by me as “you”. So, in answering the question, if Zachary used "these labels" as provided via my "pointing" when I asked the question.  In answering, it would make perfect sense that even though he knew that something belonged to "him" that he would use the pronoun "you" to answer the question, because in pointing to him or simply "asking the question"... "you" had been used to refer to "him".  

As such, in answering the question, Zachary had answered:  “To – “you””.   In answering this way, Zachary was not telling me that the object belonged to “me”, he was telling me that the object belonged to “him” and using the label I had provided in the question – the label for Zachary being “you”.  Zachary understood the object belonged to “him” but answered "to you" because "you" was the label "he" was given in the question.  

I tried this simple exercise over and over with Zachary, and sure enough, the response was always the same – in answering he would use the pronoun that had been used “to designate him” when the question had been asked!  

Thus, the issue of “pronoun confusion” was one of a "moving target" since pronouns changed based on who was doing the asking and who was doing the answering. 

Any such "moving labels" or “moving reference” – a “moving target” - in my opinion, would thus, understandably be an area of difficulty for Zachary – a child trying to make sense of his world based on "labels" for specific things – and in this case – the labels were not constant – they changed or “moved” based on who was talking.   Certainly, this had to be very confusing for Zachary and in my opinion, what would appear to be something so “trivial” to so many – proper pronoun usage – in reality, I believed could have a very detrimental effect on the concept of self if not properly understood by Zachary!  Just as “pronouns” were moving targets – so, too could be the concept of “self” when pronouns were not properly understood and “me” and “you” were somehow lost in the “shuffle”.   Truly it was critical that persons with these disorders understand the proper use of pronouns in order to prevent further loss of the concept of “self”.

It was important to work this issue because it was more than just a matter of "proper pronoun usage" – of proper “grammar”.   Truly, pronoun usage was also very much a matter influencing the concept of “self” and proper pronoun usage in my opinion, was thus, critical to solidifying the concept of "self". 

In order to help Zachary with issues of pronoun confusion, I did the following:

The easiest way to start was to take a simple sentence like:   "I love you".   I took my hand and put it on me while I said "I love" and then, when it was time to say "you" I made sure my hand was on Zachary.   I then said "And... you [with my hand on Zachary] love  me [moving my hand back me].   Then, I said, "Ok, now it's your turn" and then I took Zachary's hand and made him do the same motions/sentence so that he now took the role of "I" and "me" and I became the "you".

“I love – you – and you – love – me”.  

Such a simple sentence – with such a powerful message in more ways than one!

I also made him use his finger and put it on one of his body parts - like his nose - and had him say:   "This is my nose".   I then put his finger on my nose and had him say:  “This is your nose.”   Then I did the same thing and I assumed the role of "my".

When I interacted with Zachary, obviously, I did most of the talking and as such, when referring to Zachary, what he had heard quite often, most of his life, was Zachary being referred to as "you" – by others around him.   I had, in the past, more often referred to Zachary as “Zachary” in my speech, but I knew that had not been true of others around him.   Thus for his entire life, Zachary had heard “someone” refer to him as “you” on countless occasions.   It had only been very recently that I had noticed “just how badly” Zachary was confused when it came to pronoun usage and hence I worked on this issue – only – for several days in a row and tried to make sure I always corrected improper pronoun usage.  In my opinion, that was absolutely critical. 

I took Zachary's hand and I put it on his chest as I said:   "When Zachary is talking about Zachary, Zachary says I or me or my or mine".  Then I added, "I = me = my = mine" in order to provide for him all the pronouns – the many labels that could refer to - “himself”.   Much as in the case of the “peg” system with math, I wanted to provide for Zachary as many “options” as possible for his understanding that there could be many ways to refer to “himself” – just as there could be many ways to come up with the number ten.  Note that I also used “math equations” to help Zachary “classify himself” because understanding of language and categorization were co-located in the temporal lobe and as such, I believed that for Zachary to properly understand the concept I had to make use of “categorization” and that meant using “equals”.  The same principle applied in the formation of word associations and the concept of “self” – co-located in the frontal lobe.  Note that by using my hands and placing them on “I” or “you” I was also making use of motion – also co-located in the frontal lobe along with word associations and the concept of “self”.

Obviously, the "When ZACHARY is talking about Zachary" was the important point to get across here because, in order to get to proper pronoun usage, Zachary had to understand that some pronouns were "tied" to the person doing the talking so, that was the part I really made clear in teaching him this.

When I explained this to him, I emphasized with my voice the part of "When Zachary is talking about Zachary".   I also said "When Zachary is talking, Zachary equals I = me = my  = mine".  Those were the exact words I used to help drive home the concept.

I then told him that "When mommy is talking, mommy equals I = me = my = mine".   I did this to show him that the "I, me, my or mine" changed based on who was doing the talking.

I then put his hand on me and said:  "When Zachary is talking about mommy, Zachary says you or yours".   I did the same thing for "other people too"  - like other family members and during the day, I asked Zachary to finish the following:  "I equals… " and he completed it with "me”.  I would then prompt with the word “equals… ”  to have him also add the word “mine”, and then again I would prompt with the word “equals…” to have him also add the word “my”.   I made sure he had all four words – all four pronouns that could refer to “him”.  Thus, Zachary had to understand that “I = me = my = mine”.

Finally, in order to make sure Zachary really understood that “pronouns changed based on who was doing the talking”, I said:  “ok… now, let’s both say it”… and we simultaneously said the phrase “I love you and you love me” with each one of us placing our hands appropriately based on the “I” or “you” or “me”.   This helped to further solidify for Zachary the concept that either he or I could be the “I”, “you” or “me” and that it changed based on who was talking.  I would also “show Zachary” who was talking as I motioned and said:  “I’m [putting my hand on my chest] talking to you [pointing to Zachary]”… and then added “ now you do it…”  Zachary loved anything having to do with motion, and thus, motion worked particularly well in teaching pronoun usage.   

I also showed him the use of "other pronouns" by saying:  "You plus me = us", or “You plus me = we”.  Note again that math equations were always used.  I could then carry that to talking about someone else.  For example, in talking about Anika (his sister), I told Zachary: "If Zachary is talking about Anika, Zachary says you = she = her" and so on.   Again, the key was to get Zachary to understand that pronouns changed based on who was talking.   Zachary used to be absolutely horrible at pronouns.

I had always found that Zachary responded best to “Zachary” and as such, most often, during our interactions, I had referred to him not as “you” but as “Zachary” in the past.  It had only been as I researched so many issues about autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and saw “pronoun confusion” as an issue in these disorders that I truly began to notice that this – indeed was an issue for Zachary.  

It truly was not something I had specifically worked on until very recently only because I had not really noticed it and had no idea that such a simple concept, if misapplied, could so contribute to the destruction of his sense of self!

Zachary’s use of pronouns was now much better than it had been in the past.   He still had a little ways to go, but he had definitely made some major progress in this area in just a matter of a few days since this had been all I had worked on for several days in a row.   From then on, I also made sure I corrected any improper pronoun usage with the correct “pronoun equation” emphasizing the “when Zachary is talking”.

I must admit, I never would have imagined that pronouns could be so confusing!   When I first started working with Zachary on this issue, I found it very, very frustrating because it was so easy to “mess up” and use the wrong pronoun as I switched back and forth between “you and me” to make him understand the difference.   But, figuring out the “pronoun equation method” early had helped tremendously.   When in doubt as to how to do something or when I experienced trouble in teaching a concept, the first option I pretty well always looked at now was to somehow “build equations” to help Zachary understand a concept and to literally tell him what to say by saying:  “Say….”.  

In our household, the “building of equations” to teach concepts was something we did in many, many things.   I used this concept to teach synonyms, antonyms, etc. simply by using “equals” or “not equal”.   Zachary had a good understanding of the word “opposite” and thus, I could say “opposite of” also in teaching many concepts.   

As confusing as “pronoun usage” could be and as frustrating as I had found it that first day to teach Zachary proper pronoun usage, clearly, understanding the problem was always the first step in addressing it and amazingly, with the use of equations, Zachary had grasped the concept rather well in a short period of time.  

Simple sentences with two pronouns were really the best to start with - like the "I love you" sentence using hand motions to help reinforce the concept.  By using the "I" verses "you" and the hand motions – together – that helped categorize the pronoun/person relationship.   In my opinion, it appeared that the “categorization and understanding of language” – co-located in the temporal lobe - were being drawn on in conjunction when I used “equations”, but that “word associations” and “motions”  - co-located in the frontal lobe – along with the concept of self – were being drawn on when I supplemented with “motions”.   As such, I was activating several key parts of the brain at once as I worked on these “pronoun usage issues” – part of the brain that involved the concept of self – the very thing I was attempting to solidify! 

As with everything the key was always in first understanding the problem, then providing the proper reference or label and working at providing as many variations of the same thing as possible while trying to make use of as many functions in the brain as possible!  Co-located functions were key – as were “bridging functions”! :o)

In my opinion, it was critical to always "draw" on other functions in the same area of the brain as well as other parts of the brain.   I truly believed that would help generate new neural connections within the brain in order to somehow “reconnect” activity/communication among these various parts of the brain.  

These simple exercises could go a long way.   I could start to work on them first thing in the morning as we hugged and that was a very nice way to start the day. :o)

Although so much of this certainly seemed so overwhelming… with a little practice, it really got much easier.

It was as I worked with Zachary while we hugged in bed, as I carefully listened to his every utterance in an attempt to understand the workings of his brain that I had come to understand so many issues in Zachary’s world.

Undoubtedly, pronoun confusion, could certainly contribute to another issue – matters of discipline in children with autism, for if I child understood not who “he was” in relation to others, again, his world could certainly be one of utter confusion! 

Back To Book 4 Chapter Outline

Return To HOME Page

Copyright 2002-2008 All materials I provide on this site including several key words and phrases are copyrighted materials.  All rights reserved.  Please see Use of Materials for more on this issue.  For general comments/questions, contact me at 

Things have a tendency to disappear on the Internet, but I can often find where the information has been moved or find replacement links addressing the same issue.  There is a lot of information provided on this site and any assistance with broken links is most appreciated.   My site has now been hacked twice.   If you get bounced to sites for online drugs, etc., report this to me at once using the above email as this is a result of hacking on my site.  This had nothing to do with me and/or my site.  Read more on hacking issue.

DISCLAIMER - The statements here mentioned and/or found in my materials have not been evaluated by the FDA or any other government agency or person in the medical field or in behavior therapy and are not meant to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any illness/disorder and/or behavior.  This information is not intended as medical advice or to replace the care of a qualified healthcare physician or behavior therapist.  Always consult your medical doctor or behavior therapist.  All information provided by Jeanne A. Brohart on her website is for INFORMATION PURPOSES and to GENERATE DISCUSSION ONLY and should not be taken as medical advice or any other type of "advice".  Information put forth represents the EXTENSIVE RESEARCH and OPINIONS of a mother based on her experiences and research and provides information as it relates to one family's journey with autism in hopes that other families may benefit from this experience and/or research.  The creator of this site is not responsible for content on other sites.

DISCLAIMER - PART II - Now... for those of you who think "mother at home researching" means "uneducated person with unfounded information"... I have 10 years of university... 3 degrees... and over 30,000 hours of research into these areas.   For anyone who thinks my research is "unfounded"...  read the RESEARCH FILE posted on my home page... with its over 1,000 references ... for your reading pleasure... because... quite clearly... you haven't read it yet!   Breaking The Code - Putting Pieces In Place!©