Teaching Pronouns to Kids with Autism & Avoiding Pronoun Reversal

Many children with autism have a difficult time teaching pronouns to kids with autism. For instance, if you tell a child, “Hang up your backpack” that child may say “Hang up your backpack” while he’s hanging up his own backpack. It gets to be a bad game of who’s on first. So today I’m going to talk about my procedures for teaching pronouns.

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When children start talking, parents and professionals sometimes notice errors with teaching pronouns to kids with autism. Some professionals call this “pronoun reversals”. This often happens when for instance, a parent goes to pick up a child out of the crib and says, “Do you want mommy to pick you up?”, and the child might echo, “Pick you up.” And then they get picked up as they’re saying, “Pick you up.” It also can happen where you’re playing ball with a child and you’re saying, “Roll the ball to me”, and the child is saying, “Roll the ball to me”, as they’re rolling the ball to you. So this is how things can get kind of messed up.

So what to do differs when you’re talking about an early learner versus an intermediate learner. I’m going to give a few tips for this very complex issue. Obviously in the space of just a few minutes during this blog, I’m not going to be able to give you an exact plan for intermediate learners because this is a complex skill. But I can give you a few things to think about for both early learners just beginning to speak as well as intermediate learners.

So getting back to the early learner who is echoing, “Roll the ball to me” or “Pick you up”, the best way to prevent these pronoun reversals is for the adult, whether that be the parent or the teacher, to stop using pronouns when teaching pronouns to kids with autism. Instead of saying, “Roll the ball to me.”, just say, “Roll ball”. That way, the child echoes, and it’s not going to lead to a pronoun reversal. Instead of saying, “Do you want me to pick you up?”, just say “Pick up.” It’s also a good idea to reduce syllable and word utterance length anyway. So, using less words and stopping the use of pronouns are two great things for you to do. I did a previous video blog on length of utterances called, “What’s Wrong with the Goal for Timmy to Talk In 4-Word Utterances”, so you can check that out.

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Now for intermediate learners who have a decent amount of language but are not picking up pronouns incidentally, I have a protocol where we teach “I do, you do” and “my and your”. And some of these procedures I learned many years ago from Holly Kibbe, who’s a Behavior Analyst who did a consultation for Lucas and she gave some great advice way back in the day and I used some of these techniques to create my own procedures.

So to teach “I do, you do”, we want to start off with an object. Perhaps you have a pen and the child knows what a pen is and he doesn’t have discrimination errors between pen and pencil, which is often a problem. So, you hold the pen and you say, “Who has the pen?” That is what you say, whether you’re holding the pen or the child’s holding the pen. So, if you’re holding the pen you say, “Who has the pen?”, and right away … just after a second pause, “Who has the pen? You do.” You take a breath and you say, “You do.”, because “you do” is what we want to come out of the child’s mouth. Then we can hand the pen to the child and we can say, “Who has the pen now?”, and we prompt the child to say, “I do.” Sometimes I even take his hand gently, “I do. I do. Good. Who has the pen?”, and you might have to give a little partial vocal prompt, “I”, and the child might say, “I do.”

Be careful here and don’t start off doing this procedure when teaching pronouns to kids with autism. You want to roleplay because every adult I’ve taught this procedure basically thinks you have it and then you sit down and you mess it up because it is not natural to be holding the pen and saying, “You do”, because you’re holding the pen. So if you’re interested in seeing a short clip as an example of how this would work, watch the video version of this blog (just scroll up and click the YouTube thumbnail).

After “I do and you do” is mastered, we usually move on to “my and your” not using items anymore, but body parts and clothing. Again, you’re going to have to prompt with what you want the child to say, and this often involves the need for role-playing with another adult to get you fluent at these procedures. So, you want to sit across from the child that you’re teaching and you want to sit close enough that you’re able to easily touch his arm or your own arm. And the thing you want to ask here is, “Whose arm or whose shirt?”, and you can do nose, you can do hair, and you want to prompt right away if this is a novel skill the child has not mastered. So, it might look like, “Whose arm? Your arm. Your arm. Whose arm? Your arm.”, and you go back and forth between the child’s body parts and clothing and your own body parts and clothing, and you teach this in small, short lessons. If you’re interested in seeing another short clip of “my and your and I do, you do” all mastered, watch the video version of this blog (just scroll up and click the YouTube thumbnail).

In summary, prevention of pronoun errors early on can be reduced by eliminating pronouns altogether when teaching pronouns to kids with autism. So instead of, “Do you want a cookie?”, you might say, “Want cookie?” or just, “Cookie cookie.” For intermediate learners who need to be taught pronouns systematically, I have found that teaching “I do, you do” and then “my and your” is often the most effective way for learners to pick these skills up. However, intermediate learners who are at the VB-Mapp Levels 2-3 are extremely tricky to program for and teaching pronouns is just one very small slice of a comprehensive program that needs to be created and followed by both teachers and parents.

To learn more about programming for intermediate learners, sign up for my free online workshop on the three biggest autism mistakes professionals make with intermediate learners today.

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