Relationship Between Autism and Memory

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder have specific difficulties with memory and also with memory strengths. Even though they have severe problems with memory, it is not a diagnostic criterion. Memory difficulties can be experienced by everyone whether with an autism or not.

Most of the time, many individuals with autism have a great memory. For example, one day a man with autism talked about his experiences with autism and memory. He had all the time a great ability to retain scientific facts and thousands of snippets from the past. He claimed that he had a gift as long as he remembers, which is he could learn how to do something very quickly by just remembering and recalling directions almost word for word.

Therefore, unfortunately, his memory for people around him, places and events of his past and mostly his childhood are gone. It is unbelievable but completely gone. He said that he had no memory of being young. He could not recall and remember an example of his life, mostly prior to the age of 10.

He claimed that he could remember last week, last month and some parts of last year, however when he went the further back, it became more obvious that most of his childhood memories were gone. It affects hi also emotionally and psychologically because some parts of his life are missing and he cannot accept and understand this situation.

He was telling that he could no pull up his memory even important events he wanted desperately to hold onto. When the all was said and done he had lost everything before the age of 10 and around 70%of every memory from age 10 to graduation at age 20.

There are years of memories slipping away that he was talking about and although new memories were being formed every day, only a couple of them actually staying in his mind for recall and for remember.

He thought that his short term memory was still intact, on the contrary to his long term memory. As a result, he was very good at school and he had an honor degree every year.

He asked himself whether it happened because of his autism or not. In addition to this question, he wonders whether it is because of moderate or severe autism. According to studies, it is not easy to answer this question. Because most people with autism who participated in studies were those on the milder side.

Severe cases are quite rare in this situation. It causes insufficient findings but researchers and mental health professionals, in general, can say that moderate to severe individuals with autism may suffer memory loss of their childhood.

In these cases, calming and comforting individuals with autism who have memory loss during those times are heartbreaking for people around them. 

Individuals with autism most of the time stop to display common autistic behavior until they hit puberty. For example, hand-flapping, spinning, echolalia, avoidance having eye contact, need for routines start to disappear one by one. On the other hand, they would be still very well in school, have great grades and have still honor degrees every time.

Having Trouble with Recalling Memories

According to one study, researchers claim that children with autism spectrum disorder have problems with remembering details of events from their own lives and past.

Autobiographical memory is consisting of points recollected from a person’s life. In this case, there are two memory types that take place which is episodic and semantic memory. Autobiographical memory works on based on a combination of those. It helps people in order to maintain the connection with others socially, for example by sharing private details about their past, it is something that individuals with autism have trouble to do.

In other respect, some studies suggest that treatments and training that help to improve individuals with autism’s memories may also improve their social abilities.

There is a study which assessed children’s autobiographical memories by testing both their semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic memory stores facts as names and addresses, general world knowledge that we have accumulated throughout our lives and general knowledge are intertwined with experience. On the other hand, episodic memory records events that people experienced and it is a collection of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place, such as best friend’s birthday party.

In that study, researchers studied with 63 children with autism spectrum disorder who have an IQ of 70 or above and 63 normally developed children. They all aged 8 to 16. It lasted over 3 days. Over 3 days of memory testing, the children with autism needed more prompting to remember both recent events and older event. They were asked to do with the researchers asking when a child paused for too long or when a child became distracted.

During the process, the researchers triggered children’s memories by having them make associations with word cues. They also asked children open-ended questions, such as the first thing they remembered in their lives, the first memory that came to their mind.

Both normally developed children and children with autism formed their first memories at around 3 years of age. However, children with autism could retrieve fewer memories that normally developed children. Also, they tend to describe past events in general term instead of giving details or recall nothing at all rather than supplying specific details.

After all these, however, researchers found that emotion does not influence remember, but sometimes it affects recall. Children with autism spectrum disorder expressed less emotion than normally developed children did while describing older memories.

On the other hand, children with autism were more emotional than normally developed children in expressing recent memories. They also were able to recall the most complicated details from their emotion-laden memories.

In addition to those, older children in both groups had the ability to express more emotion and remembered more details than younger children in both groups did. So, researchers suggest that recalling and remembering to improve over time.

In spite of the fact that autism spectrum disorder seems to disruptions on both semantic memory and episodic memory, which we mentioned before what they are, they also not disrupted because of visual memory.

Instead, children in both groups who exhibit more rigid thought patterns and poor verbal fluency, marks of a deficit in executive function, struggle more than others in order to share new memories about themselves.

Meanwhile, executive function is a set of complex mental processes involved in everyday life. On the other hand, the recall of older memories does not rely on executive function abilities. So the reason for that deficit remains puzzling and unsolved. Researchers suggest that it may arise from an absence of self-awareness and reflection.

Executive functions could be impaired in children with an autism spectrum disorder. Self-awareness and reflection may be accepted as the key to transferring autobiographical events to memory.

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder Have Specific Memory Problems and Disabilities That May Underlie Aspects of Disorder

We can say that there are differences in spatial working memory, complex visual and verbal memory. They may contribute to problems with social interaction and information processing.

For example, if the children with autism spectrum disorder cannot see the forest for the trees, which might be partly because of the fact that the burden of processing all those trees at once makes it harder to lock in the scene. It was found that children with autism spectrum disorder differ from normally developed children in two specific memory capabilities.

In that study, besides mental health professionals, also neurologists participated in examining brain waves. They included 76 children from ages 8 to 16. Half of them were children with autism spectrum disorder and the other half of them were normally developed, children. They matched for age, IQ and also gender.

As we know, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder reflected social and communication impairments of the autistic type along with restricted interests and patterns of behavior. And that’s why; they added individuals who exhibit these symptoms.

As a result of that study, they got two significant results which are children with autism to have poorer memory for complex information and children with autism have poorer working memory for spatial information.

Firstly, the children with autism spectrum disorder compared to normally developed children, have poorer memory for complex information in both. In essence, we can say that the children with autism spectrum disorder find it difficult o remember information when they needed or when they have to detect such an organizing element in the information itself.

Researchers make a prediction about that individuals with autism spectrum disorder do not have the automatic mechanism between the reasoning and the memory systems, that tells those individual’s brain what is the most important to notice or how to organize them thematically.

Secondly, children with autism spectrum disorder have poorer working memory for spatial information. Also, they have poorer remembering over time where something is located once it is out of sight.

In spite of the fact that working memory for verbal information is fine with them, one of the subtests of recall of a spatial sequence easily distinguished between normally developed children and children with an autism spectrum disorder. Because there is a fact that spatial working memory depends on a specific region of the frontal cortex which is known to be dysfunctional in ASD.

After explaining these two significant results, there are some other results which are related to memory. Despite these two impairments, they do not have a global memory problem. They exhibit great associative learning ability, verbal working memory which is important for language production and recognition memory which is s the ability to recognize previously encountered events, objects, or people.

According to researchers, from the beginning, if the brain does not automatically identify and store key information and knowledge, it seriously impairs the capacity to interact, communicate and solve problems. As a result, individuals with an autism spectrum disorder might be easily overwhelmed by the complex information and stimuli in most everyday experiences.

There are some explanations about how these memory problems can affect an individual’s behaviors. Normally developed people automatically and unintentionally notice and focus on what is important in everyday life and what is relevant. On the other hand, individuals with autism spectrum disorder cannot recall or respond to what most people think it is important, because they focus on details instead of what the general picture is and what they need.

For example, let’s say that there is a teenager and she sees a poster for a new movie about an amazing romance. She and her friends talk about going to that movie and joke about the love story. But suddenly one boy comes out and interrupts them with how great it will be able to see a football film. Hearing this seeming irrelevant and makes them shocked. The others stop talking. The boy, obviously with an autism spectrum disorder, does not understand why the rest is not interested in what he is saying. He is responding to what he saw, not the larger than life stars embracing. However, the small background of the movie poster is a football game and he focuses on that detail again.

Furthermore, there are hopes for future researches. Memory deficits on social function will lead to researches to investigate autism beyond the traditional diagnostic criteria.

It is found that there is an interaction between autism-related problems ad motor, sensory and balance systems. It seems to be a widespread problem with how the brain copes with or how the brain processes all types of information with an autism spectrum disorder. Thus, researchers want to go further and look more broadly at the brain in individuals with autism spectrum disorder find whatever causes such widespread involvement.

Boosting Memory

As we all know, autism spectrum disorder does not affect only children. It is a lifelong condition that many individuals both adults and children need to manage on daily basis despite extensive coverage, too many facets of autism spectrum disorder such as what basic psychological and brain processes underlie the clinical picture, remain poorly understood and remain unexplained.

There is a study about this issue and that study aims that in order to address the gaps in our understanding by focusing on factors that influence memory and learning. We know that adults with autism spectrum disorder have more problems with memory when ask simply to recall or remember something they had previously learned or experienced. However, adults with autism are unimpaired at choosing the information that had been previous studies when ask them to choose between items of information and knowledge that they learned before and items that they did not learn.

This pattern is widespread and it led to some ideas. The idea that situations can be created for an individual with autism that capitalizes on their areas of strength in the case of memory, creating situations that increase individuals with autism’s ability to remember and ability to recall.

There are important and significant studies about how this idea can be used to support adults with autism who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

It could be either as victims, witness or perpetrators of crime. It was found that when individuals with autism are interviewed using a cognitive interview which is a structured procedure that has been shown to develop recall in other groups, the accuracy of their recall actually got worse.

However, when those individuals’ memories were tested in some conditions that recreated as much of the context of the original events as possible. So it led them to provide maximum task support and their memory improved significantly.

These results show that any task support offered must be very close to the original one, remembered the event. Vague, general, and non-specific instructions are actually detrimental to people with an autism spectrum disorder.

Furthermore, researchers have done further studies to understand why people with autism rely on task support sometimes. There is a suspicion about this may be the result of a difference in the balance between relational memory and item memory.

Relational memory is important for recall when levels of tasks support are low. On the other hand, item memory is important for supported recognition.

These difficulties with relational memory were examined through a number of experiments. For instance, in some experiments, researchers asked everyone to study different colored objects that were placed in different locations within a grid. As a result, memory tests confirmed that people on the spectrum were as good as normally developed people at remembering the objects they saw, the colors of objects or the locations that were occupied by them.

Besides these results, people with autism had difficulties remembering which objects had been in which locations or what color a specific object was. In other words, they had difficulties remembering the object-location relation or object-color relation.

It is important to find this pattern because of the fact that it helps explain the greater use of task support and also thanks to these findings we can have clues about how people on the spectrum’s brain mechanism works.

In another study, it is demonstrated that individuals with autism spectrum disorder rely to a far greater extent on information physically present in their environment when they remember the past. As a result, researchers think that this happened because they have difficulties in spontaneously linking experiences together in a way that builds elaborate, yet flexible representations of their world. Instead, researchers learn that two things go together, such as a man who is wearing a suit, they find it harder to recognize that man if he is wearing a sweater.

By the help of awareness of this difficulty, parents, teachers, and carers of individuals with autism can design learning environments that take advantage on the strengths that such a memory system can have, while at the same time avoiding its hidden dangers.

Strengthening Memory

Deficits and impairments are in memory are common with neurological conditions. And autism spectrum disorder in one of them.

Studies have inconsistency with results in identifying memory patterns across these conditions because there is no two brains are exactly alike. There are some useful methods that caretakers and teacher can use in order to teach how to remember and recall. For example;

  • Using procedural memory, which is a type of long term memory that helps people to remember how to do each step of a process, whenever possible. Instead of just telling steps, being a model for them will be more beneficial for their memories.
  • Preparing a schedule with words, symbols and pictures, includes daily habits and journaling.
  • Taking pictures to document autobiographies, special occasions and everyday occurrences, and naming them.
  • Doing exercises such as cross-lateral puzzles, yoga, brain gym, swimming and bicycling.
  • Relaxation, doing meditation and regular spiritual practices.
  • Taking vitamins such as vitamin B-12, antioxidant coenzyme Q10, omega-3, vitamin C and vitamin E.
  • Sensory inputs which could be sound, smell, color or texture in order to attach to experiences.
  • Creative outputs such as writings, photography, painting, woodworking or jewelry.
  • Repetition through stories.
  • Keeping everything simple, breaking down large ideas into smaller ones.
  • Turning everything a game because fun and simple things are remembered more.

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