Recall is a disadvantage of autism but there are ways to boost memory

Non-total recall. Police witness by Shutterstock

Ever since Leo Kanner wrote the first clinical description of early childhood autism in 1943, much of the material that has been written relates to parents and their experiences of having a child with the disorder.

But autism doesn’t affect only children. It is a life-long condition that many adults need to manage on a daily basis and despite extensive coverage, too many facets of this disorder such as what basic psychological and brain processes underlie the clinical picture, remain poorly understood.

Our research in the Autism Research Group at City University London aims to address the gaps in our understanding by focusing on factors that affect memory and learning. Early on we noted how adults with autism often experience memory difficulties when asked simply to recall something they had previously learnt. However, when asked to choose between items of information that were learnt and items that were not, they were unimpaired at choosing the information that had been previously studied.

This pattern is a widespread characteristic of memory in autism and it led to the formulation of the Task Support Hypothesis – the idea that situations can be created for individuals with autism that capitalises on their areas of strength – in the case of memory, creating situations that increase their ability to remember.

Katie Maras has been doing important work on how the technique can be used to support adults with autism who come into contact with the criminal justice system, either as victims, witnesses or perpetrators of crime. She found that when people with autism are interviewed using a structured procedure (known as the cognitive interview) that has been shown to improve recall in other groups, the accuracy of their recall actually got worse. But when their memory was tested in conditions that recreated as much of the context of the original event as possible – so they were provided maximum task support – their memory improved significantly.

This tells us that any task support offered must be very close to the original, remembered event; vague, general, non-specific instructions are actually detrimental to people in this group.

We’ve done further work to understand why individuals with autism sometimes rely more on task support. We suspect this may be the result of a difference in the balance between “relational memory”, for example, when items are remembered in context (important for recall when levels of task support are low) and “item memory” (important for supported recognition) processes.

The group examined these difficulties with relational memory through a number of experiments funded by the Medical Research Council. For example, in one of our most recent studies we asked people with and without autism to study different coloured objects that were placed in different locations within a grid. Memory tests confirmed that autistic participants were as good as non-autistic participants at remembering the objects they had seen, their colours, or the locations that were occupied by them. However, they had difficulties remembering which objects had been in which locations or what colour a particular object was – in other words the object-location or object-colour relation.

This pattern is an important finding, because it helps explain the greater use of task support in autism spectrum disorder and also gives clues to the possible brain mechanisms that are involved in autism.

Through our research, we have shown that individuals on the autism spectrum rely to a far greater extent on information physically present in their environment when remembering the past. We think this is because they have difficulty in spontaneously linking experiences together in a way that constructs elaborate, yet flexible representations of their world. Instead, when they learn that two things go together, such as John wearing a suit, they find it harder to recognise John if he’s wearing a sweater.

By being aware of this difficulty, carers and educators can design learning environments that capitalise on the strengths that such a memory system can have, while at the same time avoiding its pitfalls.