It was Tuesday, and everyone in their family knew it was a movie day. As always, Mark, who was on the spectrum, picked Spiderman. As Anna watched her son effortlessly recite the entire script of his favorite movie, she couldn’t help but wonder about the fascinating connection between autism and memory that was unraveling before her eyes.
There are many questions regarding ASD, and although each child on the spectrum is unique, no one can deny that there’s a certain relationship between autism and memory. In this article, we’ll explore the link between the two.
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 and Challenges
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects individuals in various ways, including their memory. Like any cognitive function, strengths and challenges can be associated with autism and memory. It’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum, and individuals can vary greatly in their memory abilities and challenges.
Memory Strengths in ASD
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 high-functioning autistic children can recall personal events from a young age.
The research article published by Front. 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).
Memory Challenges in ASD
Autism introduces a range of distinctive memory-related challenges that individuals on the autism spectrum may face. One notable challenge is the difficulty in generalizing information, where individuals may struggle to apply knowledge learned in one context to different situations.
Moreover, transitioning between tasks or activities can be particularly challenging, as children with autism may find it harder to switch focus or adapt to new routines smoothly. Additionally, there may be impaired recall of social cues and interactions, making it challenging to navigate social situations and understand subtle non-verbal communication.
Furthermore, grasping abstract concepts can be a challenge as well, as children with autism may have a preference for concrete and tangible information. These memory-related aspects underscore the diverse nature of the challenges that those with autism may encounter daily.
Types of Memory Mostly Affected in Autism
A lot of research studies the memory performance of autistic individuals, but working memory seems to be most affected across the autism population. Given the criteria of ASD under the DSM 5, researchers have wondered if traits/symptoms are due to challenges in cognitive domains that working memory supports. These cognitive domains are decision-making, control, and regulation of tasks, reasoning, and behavior.
Additionally, recalling personal events seems challenging for some autistic children and individuals. This type of memory recall is autobiographical memory, which is the ability to recall events from our experiences.
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Executive function describes all the cognitive processes in our brains, including working memory, impulse control, inhibitions, planning, initiation, and termination of actions. Working memory is important for human cognition and is central to executive function.
The reason why scientists believe the executive function to be challenging for children or adults with autism is that, firstly, some autistic individuals struggle to engage in purposeful and independent behavior, as well as store and export information held in long-term memory.
Secondly, working memory helps us to navigate complex and high-level cognition, such as language comprehension and long-term learning, reasoning, reading comprehension, and problem-solving. The observation that some autistic children find these tasks challenging suggests there is some form of executive dysfunction.
According to a 2019 study published by the National Library of Medicine (NIH), working memory challenges in some autistic children and adults are associated with learning disabilities, difficulties in behavioral regulation, focusing and sustaining attention, and abstract thinking, to name a few.
Of course, these observations do not apply to each individual on the autism spectrum, as symptoms differ from one individual to the next. Working memory is a complex domain of our brain, and even though we have a vast understanding of how our brains function, much remains unknown, including what makes us who we are and why we behave the way we do.
Autobiographical Memory (AM)
Difficulties with social interaction and communication are stipulated in the DSM 5 as one of the criteria for autism diagnosis. Although not every individual with autism experiences these challenges, those who do experience it each do so at a different degree.
Some challenges with social interaction and communication include engaging in social relationships and initiating and sustaining a conversation. Because of this, it can be difficult to form a social identity, but that does not mean they do not wish to. It is much more challenging amidst the anxiety and stress that creep in, the fear of being judged or misunderstood, etc. No one can truly understand the internal world of an autistic person.
How does this relate to autobiographical memory (AM)? Well, autobiographical memory refers to long-term memories that a person experiences in their own lives, i.e., those from childhood, your home address, or an event that affected your present self. Long-term memory of personal information is known as semantic AM, and long-term memory of specific events in your life is known as episodic AM.
For us to relate to another person, we rely on our own experiences, our sense of empathy, and our view of the world based on those experiences. Autobiographical memory helps us initiate, develop, and maintain social relations through conversations. Through interactions guided by our autobiographical memory, we can form close relationships.
A 2021 study published by Frontiers indicates that difficulties in episodic AM are common among some individuals with autism. Therefore, this lack of contextual details possibly makes forming a sense of identity and creating social relationships more challenging.
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Autism and Memory: Strategies for Improvement
Improving memory in children with autism involves employing tailored strategies that accommodate their specific needs and learning styles. Visual aids, structured routines, and memory games can be invaluable tools. Let’s explore each in more detail.
Using Visual Aids
Some children benefit from visual aids. Having a visual reference, such as pictures or symbols, helps strengthen procedural memory. Procedural memory is a form of long-term memory that allows you to recall tasks without thinking of them consciously, i.e., walking, riding a bike, or driving a car.
A way for parents to implement this is to take pictures representing key parts of an event or task and ask the child to order the pictures in the way that it occurred or the way the task should be completed. Thereafter, ask them to describe each scene back to you.
Regarding tasks, the more the child can describe the sequence, the more natural the task becomes (implicit/unconscious memory). When it comes to events, the more they can describe and show them to you, the easier it becomes for the child to be attentive to details. Memory becomes more explicit/conscious, and this strengthens declarative memory.
Language and Repetition
A 2016 research study found that the better participants associated memory with language by talking about it, the more details they could recall. Language is not just important for communication. It also helps to connect the experience with words or communication tools that the child best understands.
Using language and repetition, the child isn’t just receiving information like a recorder but can take in the information and translate it in a way they can understand. Repetition helps to transfer information from short-term memory to long-term memory. For children, using stories and asking the child to tell the story back to you or asking them to recall specific events in the story also helps to train that muscle.
There are so many games for children that can help improve memory. Some suggestions include:
- Match the Cards: A set of cards with matching pairs is placed facing down, and the child has to match the pairs. Turn two cards at a time; if they match, the pairs stay facing up; if not, both cards are turned facing down until all the pairs are found.
- What’s Missing?: Start with at least four or five items. Ask the child to look at the items. After 10 seconds, close their eyes and remove an item. Ask the child to open their eyes and ask what is missing. The number of items that you remove increases as you play.
- I Went Shopping: This game can be played by three or more people. Going in a circle, start with “I went shopping and bought…” The next person repeats the list, including the items the previous person mentioned, and adds one new item. This game can also be played with numbers.
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.
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Q: Can memory challenges in autism be improved with age?
A: Yes, with the help of appropriate support and interventions, many individuals with autism can improve their memory skills over time.
Q: Are there any memory-enhancing therapies for children with autism?
A: Behavioral interventions, speech therapy, and occupational therapy can effectively improve memory skills in children on the spectrum.
Q: How can parents and educators best support memory development in children with autism?
A: Providing a structured environment, using visual aids, and tailoring learning experiences to the child’s interests are effective ways to improve memory and support development.
Q: Are there any dietary or nutritional factors that can impact memory in children with autism?
A: Research on the link between diet and memory in autism is ongoing, but ensuring a balanced diet with essential nutrients is generally recommended for overall cognitive health.
Q: Can memory challenges in autism affect daily functioning?
A: Yes, memory difficulties can impact daily life. However, with appropriate strategies and accommodations, children with autism can learn to navigate these challenges successfully.