Autism and Memory
Memory function in autism has been studied for decades. The research is fascinating to me because I have high-functioning autism and it helps me describe things I already implicitly know about myself. People with high-functioning autism such as myself have both difficulties and strengths in memory compared with neurotypicals.
In my entry, Coming Out as Autistic, I recall a few anecdotes which illustrate the weakness of my short-term memory, starting with middle school English class:
Anecdote 1: English Class
My class was sent to the hall outside the English classroom. All us students got in a circle. We were trying to learn each other’s names. I knew I wasn’t good at things like that, so before the exercise even started, I asked the teacher to skip it. She told me to try anyways.
So one person began by stating their own name. Then the person to their left stated their own name and the name of those who stated their name before them. So on and so forth until one person stated everyone’s names.
Things were going smoothly until it was my turn. Despite paying full attention, I could only remember the names of a couple students directly to my right. When I couldn’t recall more names, the other students laughed at me.
Anecdote 2: SIUe Help Desk
When I got a bit older and started working at the SIUe help desk, I remember asking for a student’s ID card. He placed it on my desk. I picked it up and checked it. Then I asked for his ID card again. He furrowed his brow and frowned. The ID card was still on my desk. Even though it had only been a few seconds, I’d forgotten he already gave it to me. I realized how it must’ve looked and quickly finished up.
Anecdote 3: Verbal Instructions
All throughout my life there were times I was quickly given a set of verbal instructions and failed to follow them because I couldn’t remember them and I was too embarrassed to keep asking. At work, I didn’t want to annoy my boss. At school, I didn’t want to appear incompetent to teachers and classmates.
Anecdote 4: Memory Game
This next anecdote isn’t from Coming Out as Autistic. It happened just recently and I wanted to include it. My elementary school aged first cousin once removed crushes me at the memory game every time. It’s not just that she wins every time. Some kids are better than neurotypical adults at memory games. It’s that, even with great effort, I struggle to remember the positions of more than a few cards at once.
The research on autism and memory is consistent with my own personal experience. A poor short-term memory is common in both high-functioning autism and moderate to low-functioning autism. So is a poor episodic memory. Episodic memory is the ability to recollect previous life experiences. I intuitively knew my episodic memory was poor before I was familiar with the term.
Anecdote 1: Book Recollection
I remember being in class either in middle school or high school and we were asked to write down the storyline of any book we wanted and then read it out loud. Whoever correctly guessed the other’s book was allowed to go out. I couldn’t remember a storyline, so I was skipped. I also couldn’t recognize a storyline from anyone else’s book, so I was sitting in the middle of the class alone struggling to recognize one book with the rest of the class waiting on me.
As is consistent with the autism memory research, I also have very poor visual-spatial memory. Again, I’m going to take an excerpt from my previous entry ‘Coming Out as Autistic’:
Anecdote 1: Bus Job
After quitting the nursing home, I found a job at a bus company where I was responsible for watching over special needs students of all ages. Socializing with them wasn’t too draining since special needs people tend to be more tolerant of differences than neurotypicals. But after months of working there, I still couldn’t remember my bus route nor the order the students got on and off the bus nor where each student got dropped off. And the schedule kept changing, so every time I got a new bus driver who didn’t know the route, it was a mess.
At first I tried to write down the students’ names and the route on paper, but that didn’t help me. So I tried using GPS to help new drivers navigate my route, but I was told that being on my phone wasn’t allowed. I explained that I avoid using smartphones for things like texting anyways, but that didn’t seem to matter. I still wasn’t allowed to use it.
For clarification, I did try to learn the route for weeks. I just couldn’t remember it, no matter how hard I tried.
Anecdote 2: No Sense of Direction
My whole life, I’ve never had any sense of direction. When I’m driving, I take wrong turns going places I’ve been dozens of times already. My driving skills are fine. It’s knowing where I’m at and where I’m going that’s the problem. Luckily, I can use the offline GPS app OsmAnd as an assistive technology to help me get where I’m going. Not having a sense of direction in 2022 isn’t a big setback.
Non-Social Intuitive Knowledge
Besides my episodic and short-term memory, nothing else seems to be affected. I can acquire non-social intuitive knowledge. For example, I have good muscle memory, so I don’t fit the stereotype of the uncoordinated autistic person. I’m good at applying learned patterns across different contexts.
I can learn facts very rapidly when I’m interested in the subject. When I become hyperfocused, I can ingest new information for days on end without getting tired, bored, or needing a break. I believe I have a higher capacity for uncomfortable facts as well and I’ll explain why I think that.
Experimentally, it has been show that autistic people may be less biased. Anecdotally, when I discuss difficult topics with neurotypicals, I notice their cognitive defense mechanisms being easily triggered when they think that believing a certain thing will negatively affect them personally.
I believe that high-functioning autistic people are less prone to this bias because we have an easier time separating the truth of a belief from how holding that belief affects our lives or how it fits into our overall worldview. For instance, it took me no extra effort not to get derailed by a personal sense of disgust while writing entries considering the morality of incest and beastiality. Neurotypicals can be unbiased too, but it’s easier for autistic people.
I think the lower tendency for bias in autistic people gives us an increased capacity to recall uncomfortable facts, integrate them into our worldview, and act on them. I won’t mention any specific people, but if you look at the high profile autistic people out there, some of them became well known simply for acknowledging harsh truths and changing their behavior accordingly as opposed to ignoring the truth for convenience’s sake like most people do.
Special Interest Memory
My strongest memory strength is anything related to my special interests. If I’m interested enough in something, I don’t forget it and if I do, it takes minimal priming to recover it. I have an interest in computer security and I’m able to recall very long passphrases even after months of not entering them. I’m never worried about forgetting them, because my long-term memory with regards to special interests is intact.
Front of the Class
There’s a movie and a book about neurological differences which I’d like to share. It’s based on the true story of a teacher with Tourette Syndrome named Brad Cohen. The movie and book are titled “Front of the Class”. The movie does a good job of depicting how education leads to empathy, but it also does a good job of showing that not everyone is open to being educated. Many people are ignorant and content in their ignorance. That adversity is something all neurodiverse people have to learn to deal with.
In many ways, my story is similar to Cohen’s. I got called weirdo in school. I struggled to make any real friends. I struggled with employment thanks in part to employers not accepting my differences. Although Cohen and I have very different neurological conditions, the lessons from his life are transferable to mine. There will always be people ready to point out my deficits, whether it’s memory related or something else. No matter how well I explain my autism, some of them will never accept it. It’s a waste of time trying to gain the approval of those people.
To succeed in my life goals, I must do what Cohen did: face adversity head-on, self-advocate, and persevere. I may never be able to remember things like a neurotypical can, but I can try to put myself in situations where the kinds of memory I need are intact.
Advice For Neurodivergents
I’ll end this entry by generalizing that advice to something that I think can help all neurodivergents, regardless of the specific condition:
Put yourself in situations where your neurological differences are strengths and the weaknesses don’t matter so much.
Thanks for reading.