Help: How Do I Know If My ASD Child Has Memory Issues?

For the purposes of IEP interventions, what is the best way to find out if your child has short term memory issues? What can cause this? I have read that it is associated with Asperger’s syndrome but what is the cause, i.e., auditory/ sensory processing, hyperfocus, petit mal, ADHD? 

Help: How Do I Know If My ASD Child Has Memory Issues?

My son is highly distractive and has learning difficulties described as consistent with dyslexia, on his statement. His specific learning difficulties have never been definitely diagnosed. 

How do you determine strategies from an educational perspective if you don’t definitely know the root cause, of learning difficulties? Using inappropriate strategies can only serve to reduce successful outcomes. — Samantha

Hi Samantha. These are all very good questions! Memory is complicated as most things are when it comes to the brain but it is an important part of learning for all children; typical and neurotypical. People with autism are known to struggle more than neurotypical people with memory. However, when discussing memory, it is important to understand what part of a person’s memory isn’t working.

Short-term memory should be distinguished from working memory because they are different and can be supported in unique ways. Short-term memory refers to the “short-term information required for a verbal or visual task (e.g., remembering a phone number, blending sounds into words when reading, remembering objects, colours, location, direction).” “Working” memory refers to one’s ability to keep relevant information in your mind while doing a task.

Both types of memory help us to follow directions and complete everyday tasks. Both are also needed for learning because they help to keep a feedback loop going as we progress through the steps of doing something. Memory is highly influenced by attention and motivation for a task and also determines how information gets stored in the brain for later use (transfer to long-term memory).

For the purpose of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) a psychoeducational assessment will help to clarify if there are short-term memory issues that are significant enough to be impacting a child’s ability to access their curriculum and participate in a traditional classroom. A psychologist who works as part of the educational team should be able to complete this type of assessment, but it will only be completed at school if the team feels the child’s academic function is being impacted in a negative way or if they are unable to access or participate in their curriculum.

If a child is not qualified by the IEP team to receive testing at school, a psychologist who performs psychoeducational or neuropsychological testing privately can also evaluate a child’s short-term and working memory. They can also diagnose or clarify the type of learning disability a child may have, if there is one.

Memory issues can be caused by many things, including the challenges you mention (ADHD, sensory processing, seizure activity). This is because all of these conditions impact brain function and memory is another example of brain function. A full explanation of the neuroanatomy of memory is beyond the scope of this answer, but it is important to know that when a child has any diagnosis that is rooted in the brain, that diagnosis can interfere with typical development of other skills.

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Sometimes there is physical brain damage (as is sometimes the case with seizures). Sometimes the synapses of the brain are wired differently at birth due to genetics which is then compounded by environmental factors that influence how those genes are expressed. Sometimes physical or emotional trauma can impact how the brain functions including memory, and still other times, the reason for poor memory is unknown. Being “inattentive” means a child is not paying attention to learning related or specific stimuli, but they may actually be paying attention to many other things.

When this happens, the key information needed for learning is not being registered sufficiently and/or accurately in the brain which means it doesn’t get stored. In the case of learning disabilities, the type of assessment already mentioned (psychoeducational at school or neuropsychological testing privately by a psychologist) are two ways to clarify further what type of learning disability the child may have and the scope of that learning disability as well as if memory is a component of that disability or not.

Finally, in regards to your last question about strategies, you are correct in thinking the more information we have about the cause and type of impairment, the easier it is to develop strategies. However, it is also important to remember that fixing the root problem is only one approach and if the root cause is unknown or if the root cause is not a “fixable” problem, it is still possible to be supportive. Developing compensatory strategies is another way to support function.

Some general types of compensatory strategies that work for many reasons in multiple situations are visual aids, repetition/practice, and use of kinesthetic or body-based 3D hands-on learning. These types of compensatory strategies often work because they draw on strengths that many children with autism are known to have, regardless of the challenges they have, and because they target basic known principles of development.

When it comes to knowing whether something is a successful strategy or not, I always encourage parents to use a trial and error approach, because every child is so different. Also, things can make sense on paper but until they are tried in the real world situations that a child and family encounter, there is no real way to know.

I hope this gives you some information about how and why short-term memory impacts learning for children with autism and will help you to make some decisions about the appropriateness of trying multiple strategies to support your child with autism.


This article was featured in Issue 85 – Top Strategies for Supporting your Family

Kelly Beins

Kelly Beins, BHSc, OTR/L is a seasoned therapist with more than 23 years of experience in occupational therapy (OT). Kelly received her BA in psychology and her bachelor of health sciences in OT from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. She received her specialty certification in sensory integration in 2005 and has an extensive clinical background combining OT and sensory integration with behavioral health interventions. Kelly is a newly published children’s author of a book series about a young sheep with sensory processing disorder (, and she approaches her work with an intuitive, empathic, and playful style while implementing the most current evidence-based interventions available. Kelly also owns and operates her own group private practice in Frederick, MD, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. You may learn more about her practice, books, and unique approach to therapy by visiting her website.