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Autism and Memory: What’s the Link?


Our brains are so immense and powerful that we are driven by their complex workings. Our ability to think, reason, relate, and engage with others and tasks is granted by our brain’s ability to process the information in our environment.

Autism and Memory: What’s the Link?

The memories our brains store are a key part of our daily living. Memory helps us to function in our everyday lives and to relate to others. However, some children with autism experience challenges with memory and this can impact how they relate to the world socially. This article breaks down what memory is and why memory challenges are associated with some traits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

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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. 

Essentially, memory is the ability to encode, retain and retrieve information when we actually need it. 

Memory strengths of ASD

The ability to recall from memory is linked to how engaged and involved the person was in a situation. In ASD, memory seems to be least related to social and emotional experiences. The sensory experience of some individuals with autism help to encode some events into memory. Most high-functioning autistic children can recall personal events from a young age.

Zamoscik, et al. (2016) 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).

Which type of memory is 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. Some of these cognitive domains are: decision-making, control and regulation of tasks, reasoning, and behavior.

Additionally, the ability to recall personal events seems to be a challenge for some autistic children and individuals. Some researchers believe that high-functioning autistic individuals thrive in this area as, compared to low-functioning autistic individuals. This type of memory recall is known as autobiographical memory, which is the ability to recall events from our personal experiences. 

Below, I unpack working memory and autobiographical memory and consider why these two types of memory might be affected in children and adults on the spectrum.

Working memory

Executive function describes all the cognitive processes in our brains and this includes working memory, impulse control, inhibitions, planning, initiation, and termination of actions. Working memory is important for human cognition and is central in executive function. 

The reason why executive function is believed by scientists to be challenging for children or adults with autism is because, 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, since 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.

Other than challenges in cognition, Habib, et al. (2019) adds that 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, there’s still much that remains unknown including what makes us who we are and why we behave the way we do.


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Autobiographical memory (AM)

Difficulties with social interaction and social 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 that do experience it each do so at a different degree. 

Some challenges with social interaction and social communication include engaging in social relationships, as well as 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; rather it is a lot 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, put simply, 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. Of the various roles of AM, social function is one that I’d like to zoom into.

For us to be able to relate to another person, we rely on our own experiences, our sense of empathy, as well as our view of the world based on those experiences. Autobiographical memory helps us initiate, develop, and maintain social relations through the conversations we engage in. Through interactions guided by our autobiographical memory, we’re able to form close relationships.  

Findings by Wantzen, et al. (2021) indicate that difficulties in episodic AM are common among some individuals with autism, therefore, this lack of contextual details possibly makes it more challenging to form a sense of identity and create social relationships. Lastly, some children on the spectrum find it difficult to incorporate autobiographical information to develop and share stories, and engage in a social context.

Tips for improving memory in ASD kids

Use 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 having to think of them consciously i.e. walking, riding a bike, or driving a car. 

A way for parents to implement this is to take pictures that represent key parts of an event or task and ask the child to order the pictures in the way that it occurred or in the way the task should be completed. Thereafter, ask him/her to describe each scene back to you. When it comes to tasks, the more the child is able to describe the sequence, the more natural the task becomes (implicit/unconscious memory). When it comes to events, the more he/she can describe and show it to you, the easier it becomes for the child to be attentive to details. Memory becomes more explicit/conscious and this strengthens declarative memory.  

Don’t over complicate 

Making lessons, tasks or stories simple for the child to understand is best and is much more easily encoded into long-term memory. The goal is always to break large chunks of information into simple and smaller bits.

Language and repetition

The research study by Zamoscik, et al. (2016) found that the better participants associated memory to language by talking about it, the more details they were able to 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. 

By using language and repetition, the child isn’t just receiving information like a recorder, but is able to take in the information and translate it in a way that he/she 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 him/her to recall specific events in the story also helps to train that muscle.

Play memory games

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

  • Sudoku
  • 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 his/her eyes, remove an item. Ask the child to open his/her eyes and ask what is missing. The number of items that you remove increase 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 adding one new item. This game can also be played with numbers

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Summing up

There are many different types of memory systems, therefore, when it comes to memory challenges of autistic children, it is important to consider the child’s 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.

References

Habib, A., Harris, L., Pollick, F., & Melville, C. (2019). A meta-analysis of working memory in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. PloS one, 14(4), e0216198. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216198 

Wantzen, P., Boursette, A., Zante, E., Mioche, J., Eustache, F., Guénolé, F., Baleyte, J.M., Guillery-Girard, B. (2021). Autobiographical Memory and Social Identity in Autism: Preliminary Results of Social Positioning and Cognitive Intervention. Frontiers in psychiatry,  doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.641765. PMID: 33815227; PMCID: PMC8009988

Zamoscik, V., Mier, D., Schmidt, S. N., & Kirsch, P. (2016). Early Memories of Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Assessed Using Online Self-Reports. Frontiers in psychiatry, 7, 79. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00079

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