Opinion Conversations on the science of autism research.

Children with autism have trouble recalling memories

by  /  3 January 2014

Children with autism struggle to remember details of events from their own lives, reports a study published 27 November in Development and Psychopathology.

Autobiographical memories can help people connect socially with others, for instance by sharing intimate details about their past, something individuals with autism have trouble doing. The new study suggests that treatments that improve their memory may also improve their social abilities.

The study assessed children’s autobiographical memories by testing both semantic memory, which stores facts such as names and addresses, and episodic memory, which records events they experienced, such as a birthday party.

The researchers looked at 63 children with autism who have intelligence quotients of 70 or higher, and 63 controls, all aged 8 to 16. Over three days of memory testing, the children with autism needed more prompting to remember both recent and older events, with the researchers asking, “And then what?” when a child paused for too long or became distracted.

The researchers triggered memories in the participants by having them make associations with word cues such as “happy,” “angry” and “search.” They also asked them open-ended questions, including, “Tell me the first thing that ever happened to you, that you can remember, in your whole life.”

Both groups formed their first memories at around 3 years of age. However, those in the autism group retrieved fewer memories than controls did. They also tended to describe past events in general terms, such as, “my holiday with Grandma” or recall nothing at all, rather than supplying specific details.

Emotion does influence recall in some ways, however. Children with autism expressed less emotion than controls did when describing older memories, but surprisingly were more emotional than controls in descriptions of recent memories. They also recalled the most intricate details from their emotion-laden memories, a fact that holds true for most people.

What’s more, older children in both groups expressed more emotion and remembered more details than did the younger ones, suggesting that these skills improve over time.

Although autism seems to impair the recall of both semantic and episodic memories, neither difficulty seems rooted in problems with visual memory. Instead, children in both groups who show more rigid thought patterns and poor verbal fluency, marks of a shortfall in executive function, struggle more than others to share new memories about themselves. Executive function is a set of complex mental processes involved in everyday life.

In contrast, the recall of older memories doesn’t rely on executive function abilities, so the reason for that deficit remains puzzling. It may stem from an absence of self-awareness and reflection, functions that may be impaired in children with autism, the researchers say. Self-awareness and reflection may then be the key to committing autobiographical events to memory.

10 responses to “Children with autism have trouble recalling memories”

  1. Christine says:

    How did the researchers distinguish between not wanting to talk about this to the researcher and not remembering it? Just because persons with autism can’t or don’t want to talk about the details of their lives to a stranger is no reliable indication that they don’t remember them.

  2. ASD Dad says:

    Epilepsy / seizures are evident in some 20 – 30% of ASD children and adults and in some subgroups of ASD up to 77%. EEG abnormalities as reported by Holmes in Nature Medical evidence some 40% of ASD children, compared to just 2% in the normal population.

    The relationship between Attention, Executive Function, Learning and Memory, Processing Speed and Information Processing and Epilepsy is well known.

    Presenting ASD children and adults in a holistic framework enables greater understanding and a better chance of treating and caring for them moving forward.

  3. Dawn Marcotte says:

    I agree with Christine. My daughter is on the spectrum and we have long known that asking her ‘what did you do today’ or any other general question we aren’t going to get much of a response. If we let her tell us when she is ready we will get a full and detailed report (She tends to be very talkative at bedtime and fills us in on her day at that time) We have learned not to ask much until bedtime and then she is able to respond to our questions.

    It isn’t always about what they remember, but how they process those memories and organize them in a way they are able to communicate.

    I would also like to mention a great website for families impacted by autism, http://www.asd-dr.com is designed to help families find the treatments, therapists and services they need in the local area. It also has a lot of links to online support through links to organizations, forums and other references.

    • laurageggel says:

      Dear Christine and Dawn,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The children came in for three days of
      testing, and this may have helped acclimate them to the researchers.
      However, as you point out, the researchers acknowledge that their method
      may have limitations. It’s possible that the way they collected the data,
      that is asking the children to verbally relate memories, did not fully
      capture the participants’ true recollections.

      All the best,

  4. Autism mom says:

    Autism, until its latest description in DSM V, is first characterized as a communication disorder. Assessing memory function by asking for reports and recall is absurd. No mention is made of language function in the study….just IQ. Really?

    My low verbal child with autism, at age 21, still associates movies with households and people who have moved across the country into new households, from his toddler days. For a long time naming a movie title would conjure up a relationship-the only words he had for people who were safe and kind and experiences from long ago that are clearly in his memory.

    I believe there is also developmental literature on memory and language, and that it is difficult to put words later to things that you did not have words for at the time. So again, in ASD kids with delayed language acquisition it would make sense that it was more difficult to recall earlier memories, as those memoirs would have been stored without the context of language.

  5. Mackay Vandyke says:

    Could extremely nice handwriting be a part of this?

  6. Mary Jane Blackman says:

    My daughter Lucy wrote “Lucy’s Story”, her autobiography up to the age of 19 some years ago at the same time she was doing a university degree. She used a lot of written resources and video to research her own life.
    Lucy is now 41. Recently she has published a collection of writing “Carrying Autism, Feeling Language” currently free to download on
    One topic she revisits in several sections is how she often cannot describe events or even “things” which are outside her own body (i.e. not part of her sensory response) without cues or interaction with another person. This obviously has implications for pragmatic expression. I wonder if this ties in with this article.

  7. Leslie says:

    I think that “Autism Mom” is actually on to something when she says “that it is difficult to put words later to things that you did not have words for at the time.” A non-verbal person will process memories very differently in the absence of language than a person who is verbal and is using verbal referents to label and store an event or information.

  8. Elaine says:

    I have a brother and when he wakes up, he cannot remember a thing until he is given a visual cue. Once he woke up and didn’t remember he had a family until he saw my brother. Another time, he stayed in bed for 20 minutes trying to figure out who he was. He calls it a “pop-up ads memory” where things just pop up after you “click” or in this case see a visual cue.

  9. LSky says:

    My son diagnosed with high function aspergers has no long term memory. He was early with language and hyper verbal.14

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