Autism and memory
Read and Spell Blog
Autism and memory
A guest post by Ethan Miller, online ESL tutor and parent to a 7-year-old child with autism.
In our busy lives, seldom do we sit down and really appreciate the power of the human brain. For most of us, learning and recall work on autopilot. But, no two brains function the same way, and there are people who suffer from conditions like autism that affect their learning and recall capabilities.
Before we discuss recall and autism further, it is important to learn more about two different types of human memory: explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit memory involves deliberately remembering data, facts, and past events. It is further classified as episodic memory, i.e. the recollecting of past experiences from one’s life, and semantic memory that involves storage of facts, ideas, and concepts in the brain. Implicit memory controls the involuntary actions and thoughts that have been ingrained in an individual’s mind due to repetition over a period of time.
It is often noted that individuals with autism have trouble recollecting facts and past events. Since explicit memory is a problem area for people with autism, we will focus on implicit memory and visual memory to harness recall abilities.

5 Techniques to try

Here are a few ways to improve recall and learning among kids with autism:
  1. Forming habits through incremental learning and repetition. The brain of a child with autism is ill-equipped to comprehend complex instructions and long, complicated sentences. While teaching a child on the spectrum, it is necessary to convey your ideas in short and simple sentences. Breaking down a complex task into a simple set of steps is a highly recommended method to teach children with autism, as it promotes incremental learning.

    Incremental learning is a step-by-step approach to learning a difficult concept where the children proceed to learn the next steps once they have completely understood the current step. Whether it is taking out the trash or solving a math problem, incremental learning combined with repetition has proven to work wonders in improving retention for individuals with autism. Since this method makes use of rote learning to form a habit, it creates an implicit memory that can be recalled easily by those on the spectrum.

    TTRS TIP: Touch-type Read and Spell teaches typing as a means for helping children and adults with autism communicate and work more efficiently on the computer. It also reinforces spelling by breaking typing/ phonics lessons down into incremental modules, which can be repeated as necessary. This helps learners get material into memory and build implicit memories for language and keyboarding. Learn more about autism and typing in this article.

    Learn more
    Support can come in the form of activities that target different aspects and problems with processing in the brain

  2. Using visual cues. It is often found that children with autism understand things better when they are represented through a visual medium. Thanks to their strong visual memory, they tend to remember things that have visually impacted their brains. Therefore, visual cues are great tools for improving learning and recall. Bright colors, pictures, and videos leave a lasting impression on the child’s mind, helping him/her to remember things. Generally, the child with autism can form a correlation between the concept that is being taught and the visual cue that is displayed, thus improving retention. For example, try teaching addition and subtraction with the help of pictures of candy bars or cupcakes so that the subject is more relatable. 
  3. Memory games. All children like fun and games. Kids with autism are no different in this regard. Their love for games can be utilized to sharpen their retention abilities. Simple games like a treasure hunt can help individuals with autism to remember day-to-day household activities. Lego is good to create spatial awareness. Playing quiz games with colorful flashcards will help them remember facts and lessons. Studies have found that kids on the spectrum learn better from educational video games. Since video games are great visual tools, they help in learning and retention. Games like Echochrome are perfect for developing spatial reasoning whereas games like Stellar speller are great for remembering new words. Memory games inspire learning and are visually attractive but most importantly, they are fun and that makes a huge difference when it comes to improving memory.
  4. Creating stories. Why is it that we remember stories but forget facts, concepts and other information? The simple answer to this question is that stories are interesting and connect with you on a deeper emotional level. Children on the spectrum can learn and remember lessons if they are told in the form of a story. Put on your storyteller hat and explain concepts through stories. Ensure that the stories you tell not only convey the concept but also have an emotional core to them. Help children identify the emotions and facts in the story. Repeat the story over and over again so that the meaning behind the story is ingrained in their minds. 
  5. Documenting events with pictures. Episodic memory is useful for remembering past experiences from one’s life. In general, children with autism have a weak episodic memory and they can’t always recall things that happened in the past. Taking a lot of pictures and documenting the story or emotion behind the pictures has proven to work wonders for improving episodic memory. Encourage kids with autism to take photos in day-to-day life and write what the pictures mean to them. When they revisit these pictures and reread their descriptions, it helps them reconnect the memories and boosts overall recall.

Which techniques do you use?

Since no two individuals learn in the exact same way, parents and teachers need to try different techniques to memory and improve recall and find out what works best for the individual dealing with autism. Most importantly, one needs to be patient and understand a child’s particular behavioral patterns - in order to help him or her get started with a new activity. If you have any additional ideas or practices that you commonly employ with learners who have autism, please mention them in the comments below!

Guest author Ethan Miller

Ethan Miller is an online ESL tutor and parent to a 7-year-old child with autism. Born and raised in Aurora, Texas, he now lives in Seattle and teaches English to students through Skype and Upwork. When he is not teaching, Ethan loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @ESLwithEthan and check out his blog.
Individuals with autism – including children, can use games to help with memory

From the Read and Spell Blog:

As discussed in this guest post, memory problems in children with autism can have significant implications for success at school, particularly when they impact on learning and recall of new material. However, they can also affect literacy skills like reading (1).
How is memory involved in reading?
Short-term memory, also called working memory, helps us with executive functioning. We need it to process information in the brain and manage multiple tasks at once. Reading is a complex skill that requires individuals to coordinate a number of tasks at once, including higher and lower order reasoning. It involves decoding language, activating the meaning of familiar words and phrases, making sense of their arrangement, referencing prior knowledge of a topic, guessing at the meaning of any unknown words, processing meaning of the text as a whole, situating it in a certain context, and then holding this understanding in memory.
When a child is first learning how to read, he or she initially spends a lot of brain power identifying letters and matching them to sounds in isolated words. As one-word reading expands to 1-3 word sentences, the child must also pair words with their meaning and make sense of their arrangement. A young child may initially experience problems dealing with longer and more complex phrases but as he or she gets older, brain development and capacity expands. Moreover, reading on the whole becomes a faster and more fluent process thanks to recognition of familiar words and sight reading. When individuals skip the decoding stage they are saving brain power for more elaborate processing of meaning.
Reading in individuals with autism
Unlike students who struggle with dyslexia, children with autism are generally able to sound out words in reading without too many problems. In a 2010 study, researchers working with 384 participants with ASD and 100 learners with dyslexia found individuals with autism had better word decoding skills than those with dyslexia across nine measures of reading ability (2). Results also indicated, however, that individuals with autism struggle more when it comes to comprehension  - also known as reading for meaning. It’s not entirely clear why, and sometimes this unknown is related to the fact that it’s difficult to assess the comprehension – particularly in non-verbal individuals with autism. Nonetheless, short-term memory may also play a role.  
Individuals with autism can forget what they’ve read or have difficulty recognizing references to earlier information in the text. In other words, they can find it hard to juggle the processing of new information and how it relates to what they have already read. Additionally, they may need more time to understand and follow a plot line that involves emotional responses, social relationships, or events which are not transparent and causal (3). As the National Autistic Society notes "Autistic people often have difficulty 'reading' other people - recognising or understanding others' feelings and intentions - and expressing their own emotions. This can make it very hard for them to navigate the social world." The same is true when these social relationships are written down. Subtleties of communication and character intention may be confusing (4) and readers with autism can find figurative language very difficult to understand.
Text type can make a difference
Problems in reading are sometimes linked to text type. Some individuals with autism find shorter sentences which include fewer clauses and more direct language are easier to process. It may also help when an author uses less flowery and abstract language and more concrete nouns. In general, the more familiar the vocabulary is, the easier it will be to make sense of the text. This is true for learners with and without autism. That’s because less brain power will be required to process new words and more of working memory is free to focus on meaning. If the topic is familiar and something an individual is passionate about, there will be even more motivation to read and understand. It may also be easier to relate what has been read to prior knowledge of the topic, which can help with memory and retention of learning. 
1) Nouwens, S., Groen, M. & Verhoeven, L. (2017). How working memory relates to children's reading comprehension: the importance of domain-specificity in storage and processing. Reading and Writing, 30(1), 105-120.
2) Heumer, S. & Mann, V. (2010). A comprehensive profile of decoding and comprehension in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(4), 485-493.
3) Ricketts, J., Jones, C.R.G., Happe, F. & Charman, T. (2013). Reading comprehension in autism spectrum disorders: the role of oral language and social functioning. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(4), 807-816.
4) Happe, F. (1995). Understanding minds and metaphors: insights from the study of figurative language in autism. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 10(4), 272-275.

For autistic learners

TTRS is a program designed to get children and adults with autism touch-typing, with additional support for reading and spelling.

About the Author 

Ethan Miller

Ethan Miller is an online ESL tutor and parent to a 7-year-old child with autism. Born and raised in Aurora, Texas, he now lives in Seattle and teaches English to students through Skype and Upwork. When he is not teaching, Ethan loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology.
Reviewed by 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.