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

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.

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