The Impact of Autism (ASD) on Episodic Memory

IF you haven't read part one, click here

The main body of research on episodic memory within ASD has been carried out by Lind.  Lind(2010) states that the interpersonal social communication difficulties, experienced by individuals with ASD, inhibits their ability to form episodic memories through parent-child engagements within shared moments, events or episodes. 

·       As individuals with autism have difficulty sensing the emotions that they are experiencing in the moment this will impede any emotional episodic memory encoding and will therefore impact emotion related recall. 

o   Research by Lind (2010), cites a case study in which a 21-year-old high functioning individual with autism was able to recall that one of his unique personality traits was that he was friendly.  When asked to recall specific detail on when he was friendly to another, or an event where he showed friendly behaviour, he was unable to do so.  He had an inability to tie his self-belief to an actual experience of his own feelings of being friendly within any given moment of time.

·       It is thought that the inability to encode emotion laden memories may prevent a build-up of memories that will help create a sense of self across time.  Whereas, a typically developing child will be building up a bank of ‘I can’ memories this is lacking in children with ASD.  Therefore, the ASD child will not have memories that they can reflect on to enhance their sense of self emotionally and developmentally.  As a result, the sense of self changing across time is prevented from happening.

·       A lack of future thinking leads to rigid behaviour and a dependence on following learned strategies and rules, such as social stories and scripts, that may not be a best fit and could possibly lead to failure.

o   For example, a young man is living semi-independently and has set a rule that his cleaning and tidying always takes place on a Monday.  If something else occurs on a Monday that prevents the tasks from being carried out then he simply has to wait until the following Monday.  He is unable to take into account how is environment is changing in order to reflect back on any feelings that he has when everything is clean and tidy.  He cannot use the negative situation to connect to any positive memories as a motivator to do the tasks at any other time.  He is basically rule driven, which overrides any decision making capabilities.

The Way Forward

Children with autism need intervention to be supported on how to lay down positive episodic memories, otherwise there will be a detrimental impact upon:

·       self-awareness
·       the ability to reflect and predict personal outcomes from actions they take.  This will impact on self-inhibition as they are unable to think about the consequences of their actions and curtail those actions in order to take away positive rather than negative feelings.
·       self-regulation, the ability to self-calm based on previous memories of feeling good as a result of doing so.
·       the ability to integrate differing perspectives, being able to use own and other peoples emotions as a way of developing self.

These are all competencies that are vital for engagement in learning and to improve quality of life. 

The individual has to have an emotional sense of why that stood out to ‘me’, what that experience meant to ‘me’ and how it emotionally affected ‘me’.  This is not something we can tell the individual with autism to think and feel, it is something that they have to experience within themselves, as it is based around one’s own unique emotional reactions at any given time.

How do we help the individual with autism to encode these emotion laden memories?
I suggest that taking into account the information shared previously, on the importance of the parent-child relationship for the development of episodic memory, that the ASD child’s lack of interpersonal self-awareness negates the possibility of episodic memory formation without intervention.  Therefore, our aim needs to be working on enabling the formation of meaningful unique emotional memories.

As previously stated, these memories are formed through the parent / child relationship.  Children on the autism spectrum have missed developmental milestones that they need help to put into place.  Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) works at helping the parent to step into a guiding role in order to help their apprentice-child to synchronise their actions, so that the child learns the benefit of back and forth emotion and experience sharing interaction.  It is through many hours of these emotion filled synchronised interactions that an RDI consultant will help the parent to learn how to scaffold the child’s success. 

In addition, the RDI consultant will guide the parent on how to spotlight moments that are important to help the child to start to connect to and encode emotionally meaningful memories across time and place.  Parents will also be taught how to retrieve and reflect on these memories to enable their child to start to build a bank of ‘I can’ memories.  Over time the responsibility for the encoding and reflection will be transferred to the child for their everyday usage.  It will take many hours of one-to-one interaction, encoding and reflecting.  The payoff will be a child / individual who can use their emotions to inform and empower them when thinking of future events, but also in the here and now of a moment in time.  Ultimately the individual’s quality of life and decision making will vastly improve.

Lind, S., E., (2010) ‘Memory and the self in autism, A review and theoretical framework’, Autism Online First, published on July 29, 2010 as doi:10.1177/1362361309358700

Sharon Bradbrook-Armit
RDI Certified Consultant
Thinking in Shades of Grey Ltd
UK, Europe

Kathy Darrow
RDI Certified Consultant


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