Memory problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

A black and white picture of a boy looking confused

My son struggles with his short term memory. He says he can’t remember things he has done recently. For instance, when he comes home from school, he cant always remember what he has done that day.

If I give him a list of things to do such as “go upstairs, put your phone on charge, then put your pyjamas on” he would recall and follow the first instruction but forget the rest.

He also struggles to remember how to do things sometimes, so needs written instructions for tasks such as showering and washing his hair until he has done them enough times to remember.

There are other times his memory his extremely good. His long term memory is brilliant and he often brings up past events that I have no recollection of! This is not always a good thing because he can have very vivid memories and flashbacks that upset him. He also has a very good memory of facts and figures, especially if it’s from a subject he is interested in.

With Autism being a spectrum and every individual on that spectrum being obviously very different, memory loss does not necessarily affect all Autistic children in the same way, if at all. This means that medical studies have had inconsistent results in identifying memory patterns, however they have found that deficits in memory are common with Autism.

It is common for children with Autism to have a better visual memory or memories connected to senses such as recalling the colour, smell or taste of things in the past. Because they remember visually, some children need to be shown step by step how to do things a number of times before they can remember how to do it by themselves.

The Autism Research Group at City University London have done studies on factors that affect memory and learning. They quickly realised that when asked to recall something they had learnt, Autistic adults often find it difficult. When those individuals were given options of things they had learnt and things they hadn’t, they were able to recall which was which.

Autistic children often rely more on information that is physically present in the environment to remember things. This means for instance they might learn that two things go together rather than linking experiences that are flexible. For example if Sarah is wearing a red dress when they first meet her,  they might not recognise who Sarah is the next time they see her if she is wearing something different.

In the classroom, children with autism might find things difficult because they don’t know what to focus on. If given more than one task they can’t determine which is the most important. This isn’t them being indecisive or awkward, brain studies have shown that it is actually impossible for them.

It is, however common for Autistic children to have good long term memory, often connected to sensory memories such as remembering sounds, smells and taste. Many can even remember being babies!  This can be a great advantage but isn’t always a good thing as flashbacks to negative memories can be more common. It is also very common for Autistic children to remember very well, and be able to recall, factual information about subjects they find interesting.

Struggling with memory can have an impact on many areas of an Autistic child’s life. Memories help people connect socially, help us follow instructions and know what to do. They help us know how to act in different situations and to recognise people and places. With a lack of memory these situations become a lot harder for children with Autism.

How can we help children who struggle with memory?

Remember all children are different and may struggle or not struggle in different situations so it is always best to get to know the child you are helping or teaching.

It is a good idea to avoid giving long strings of verbal instructions.

It can be useful to some children to have checklists or instructions for tasks that have more than one step.  For young children who can’t read these can be picture instructions, for older children who can read, written instructions can work although pictures may still be useful as visual memory may be better.

In school it is good to be aware and recognise that children may find it difficult to follow instructions given for a class activity or task and may need step by step guidance to help them progress from “get your book and pencil” to the following stages. This will also ease their anxiety about completing tasks given.

Demonstrating tasks and talking through them as you do so can help the child remember what to do, along with checklists.

Children with autism can be easily distracted so may find it hard to shift their attention between the board and the teacher talking. The result of this is that it can then be more difficult to remember the lesson. One method of presentation may make it easier for them, a visual one would be better.

Giving one task at a time will help children that can’t determine which tasks should take priority.

Giving detailed context to situations we are trying to get children to recall will make it easier for them to remember.

Although I have focussed more on memory in Autistic children in this post, it is just as important to realise that this issue does not stop when a child reaches adulthood. Many Autistic adults also struggle with aspects of their memory and also need understanding and support in the workplace and otherwise.

A black and white photo of a boy looking confused with the text

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Published by Autism Kids on Tour - Autism without limits

I have two kids and love to show them the world. We dont let autism limit us in our adventures! I write about our adventures and include tips on how suitable activities were for children with autism. I also write more autism specific posts.

8 thoughts on “Memory problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

  1. My daughter can’t remember anything before 6 months ago. This is a recent problem, she’s 13. It seems to be getting worse at present and I’m struggling to get help for her. She’s also having problems remembering how to do things she used to be able to do like solve maths problems what’s involved in cleaning her shoes etc. It really is heart breaking that all those memories are gone. She’s worried that she’s losing herself and having no memories makes her feel like she’s not a real person.

    1. This sounds horrible for you and your daughter. I hope you get the help you need x

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