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Autism and Memory: What’s the Link?

December 11, 2023

Many believe autistic brains are wired differently, which often raises the question if there’s a link between autism and memory. How we think, reason, connect with others, and handle tasks depends on how well our brains process information from the world around us. So, what does that mean for people on the spectrum?

There are many questions regarding autism, and although each child on the spectrum is unique, no one can deny that there’s a certain relationship between autism and memory. We’re here to help you understand their connection.

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What is Memory?

It’s easy to say: “Well, memory is what I remember”. Rightfully so! But, for us to remember what we do, we need to be able to extract the information, and for that information to be present, something must have happened to have placed it there. 

Additionally, of course, to retrieve that information, it has to have been stored somewhere. How can I remember something I never encountered? And how could I have encountered it if I don’t remember that I did? Memory isn’t as simple as we’d like to believe it is.

Memory is the ability to encode, retain, and retrieve information when needed. 

Autism and Memory Strengths

The ability to recall from memory is linked to the person’s engagement and involvement. In autism, memory is the least related to social and emotional experiences.

The sensory experience of some individuals with autism helps to encode some events into memory. Most autistic children can recall personal events from a young age.

The research article published by Frontiers in Psychiatry studied the influence of sensory input and language acquisition on early memory formation. The study found that most autistic participants recalled events and reported them with sensory details.

This study also helps to disprove that autistic children and adults experience deficits in personal episodic memory (memory of a specific event unique to each person).

Autism and Memory Challenges

Autism introduces a range of distinctive memory-related challenges that individuals on the autism spectrum may face. The most common ones are:

  • trouble applying knowledge from one situation to another (difficulty in generalizing information)
  • difficulties with switching focus or adapting to new routines smoothly
  • impaired recall of social cues and interactions
  • difficulties with grasping abstract concepts.

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Effects of Autism on Working Memory

Executive function includes all cognitive processes in our brains. Working memory, crucial for human thinking, is a key component of executive function.

Scientists believe that people with autism may find it hard to do certain tasks because of difficulties in how their brains work. This includes problems with purposeful actions, doing things independently, and remembering information.

Also, tasks that need thinking and remembering, such as understanding language or solving problems, can be challenging for autistic people.

According to a 2019 study published by the National Library of Medicine (NIH), working memory difficulties in some autistic individuals are linked to:

  • learning disabilities,
  • issues in behavioral regulation,
  • attention, and
  • abstract thinking.

It’s important to note that these observations vary among individuals on the autism spectrum as symptoms differ. Despite our understanding of brain function, many aspects remain unknown, including what shapes our identity and behavior.

Effects of Autism on Autobiographical Memory (AM)

Autobiographical memory (AM) is a type of memory that involves recalling personal experiences, such as childhood memories or significant life events.

There are two types of autobiographical memory: 

  • Semantic AM – remembering personal information
  • Episodic AM – remembering specific events.

Our ability to relate to others is influenced by our experiences, empathy, and worldview shaped by our autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory is crucial in initiating, developing, and maintaining social relationships through conversations.

A 2021 study in Frontiers suggests that some individuals with autism may experience difficulties in episodic AM, making it challenging to include contextual details in their memories.

This difficulty could contribute to the struggle to form a sense of identity and build social relationships.

A table showing the effects of autism on memory 
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-memory/

How To Improve Memory in Autism

Improving memory in autistic children involves employing tailored strategies that accommodate their specific needs and learning styles. Visual aids, language and repetition, and memory games can be invaluable tools. 

Visual Aids

Some kids find it helpful to use pictures or symbols as visual aids. This strengthens their ability to remember how to do things without consciously thinking about them, like walking or riding a bike.

Parents can take pictures representing different steps of an activity, have the child arrange them in order, and then describe each step. This helps make tasks more natural for the child. 

Describing events with pictures also makes it easier for the child to notice details, strengthening their conscious memory.

Language and Repetition

A study in 2016 discovered that people could remember more details if they linked memories with language by talking about them. Language is not just for talking – it also helps connect experiences with words or communication tools that children understand best.

When children use language and repeat information, they don’t just passively receive it. They actively understand and interpret it.

Repetition is useful because it helps move information from short-term to long-term memory. For kids, telling stories and asking them to retell or remember specific events from the story helps strengthen their memory.

Memory Games

There are so many games for children that can help improve memory. Some suggestions include:

  • Sudoku
  • Match the Cards: Flip over pairs of cards and try to find matching ones. If they match, keep them face up; if not, turn them face down until all pairs are matched.
  • What’s Missing?: Show the child four or five items. After 10 seconds, close their eyes, remove one item, and ask them to open their eyes and figure out what’s missing. 
  • I Went Shopping: Take turns saying what you bought at the store. Each person says, “I went shopping and bought…” then repeats what others said and adds a new item. 

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Tailoring Memory Support for Autistic Children

There are many different types of memory systems. Therefore, when it comes to memory challenges of autistic children, it is important to consider their specific difficulties and work to improve those areas. The memory ability of autistic children differs across the spectrum.

There’s no rule book for improving a specific aspect of memory that your child may struggle with. Practice, adapt, and adjust learning strategies that work best for your child. Always seek professional help if you’re unsure of which intervention or approach to tackle along the way.

FAQs

Q: Does autism cause memory loss in adults? 

A: Autism is not generally associated with significant memory loss in adults. However, individuals with autism may exhibit variations in memory function, with some showing strengths and others facing challenges in specific memory domains.

Q: Do people with autism have photographic memory?

A: Not all people with autism have photographic memory, as abilities vary widely among individuals on the autism spectrum. While some may exhibit exceptional memory skills, such as photographic memory, it is not a universal trait for everyone with autism.

Q: Do autistic people have good visual memory?

A: Autistic children showed advantages in remembering visual images, and their memory was more precise than their typically developing peers.

Q: Does autism affect concentration?

A: Yes, many autistic children find it challenging to concentrate on things that don’t grab their interest. Though it’s not easy, consistent practice can help improve their ability to focus.

References:

Autobiographical Memory and Social Identity in Autism: Preliminary Results of Social Positioning and Cognitive Intervention, 2021
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.641765/full

Early Memories of Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Assessed Using Online Self-Reports
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301774963_Early_Memories_of_Individuals_on_the_Autism_Spectrum_Assessed_Using_Online_Self-Reports

Brief Report: Generalization weaknesses in verbally fluent children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4573235/

Replicable Patterns of Memory Impairments in Children With Autism and Their Links to Hyperconnected Brain Circuits, 2023
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2451902223001210?via%3Dihub

Literature Review of Interventions for Between-Task Transitioning for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Including Autism Spectrum Disorders
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40489-014-0039-0

Deficits in executive functions among youths with autism spectrum disorders: an age-stratified analysis
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4873936/

Working Memory Deficits and its Relationship to Autism Spectrum Disorders
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071553/

A meta-analysis of working memory in individuals with autism spectrum disorders
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31039192/

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