Personal Reference in Subjects with Autism

  • Paola PennisiEmail author
Part of the Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy & Psychology book series (PEPRPHPS, volume 20)


One of the roles of philosophy in the age of the third generation of cognitive scientists is to integrate data and theories from many different research fields (neuroscience, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, linguistics, etc…).The second step is to integrate them into the development of more general theoretical backgrounds in order to evaluate if the latter seems to be prolific for human thought. Recently, thanks to clinical pragmatics studies, we have a growing corpus of empirical data regarding pragmatic anomalies of subjects with autism.

In this study I will try to show the limits of the explanation of linguistic and pragmatic alterations in subjects with autism as a consequence of their deficit in Theory of Mind and I will try to show the advantages of a more holistic cognitive background such as that of Embodied Cognition (EC) theories.

My main focus will be on alterations regarding the fixation of personal reference in subjects with autism. I will analyse some studies conducted on typical subjects that investigate the embodiment processes at various levels during the use of personal reference. After, I will critically discuss some studies regarding the anomalies in the use of personal references in subjects with autism. Finally I will compare three kinds of explanations for the phenomenon: the echolalic one; the one regarding the deficit in ToM and a third one, proposed by me, that links these alterations to the higher level of performativity required by the fixation of personal reference in subjects with anomalies in the embodiment system, which seems to be the case for patients with autism.

This last thesis seems to take into account the complexity of situations in which subjects with autism show anomalies in the fixation of personal reference more than the two others considered. It, in fact, considers both the deficit in ToM and the deficit in executive functions and moreover, in doing that, it maintains a strong ecological perspective.

This study suggests that the fixation of personal reference in subjects with autism could receive some very useful theoretical tools from EC theories to be explained and understood.


Fixing of Personal Reference in Subjects with Autism

Subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) seem to show impairments in embodiment. It has been shown that personal pronouns trigger different levels of embodiment during ecological interactions in typically developed (TD) subjects.

Despite the fact that a lot of studies mentioned the existence of some anomalies in the use of personal pronouns in subjects with ASD, scientific and philosophical literature on autism rarely related such anomalies to impairments in embodiment. This study tries to overcome this shortage suggesting that the anomalies in the use of personal pronouns found in subjects with ASD should be studied through the lens of Embodied Cognition (EC) theories.

In order to reach its goal, this study compares the literature on the use of personal pronouns in subjects with and without ASD and proposes an interpretation of subjects’ with ASD anomalies in the use of personal pronouns.

Re-analysing empirical data provided by other studies, this study posits to interpret them as follows: anomalies in the use of personal pronouns in subjects with ASD could be relate to the impairment in the use of the embodied ego-centric perspective. Their well-known deficit in executive functions makes difficult to shift from a deeply-embodied to a visuo-spatial perspective as TD subjects usually seem to do. According to this view, subjects with ASD seem to compensate their deficits by using more frequently than typically developed (TD) subjects a perspective that is more focused on visual-cues than on possibility-to-act cues. In other words, it looks like ASD subjects perceive some scene as non-agent bodies or as differently-acting bodies.

The paper ends with some reflections on the difference in fixing reference among subjects with ASD, TD subjects, robots and bees and on their relation with Konrad Lorenz’s concept of eurytopicity.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Linguistic Centre of Messina University (CLAM)MessinaItaly

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