All of us are forgetful at times, but for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), forgetting things is a much more common occurrence. There are various reasons for this, one being that individuals with ASD often form stronger memories associated with negative events than in the general population.
Researchers from the University of Warwick in England conducted experiments in which they played a recording of a story for children with and without ASD. They were then tested on their memories of the story after varying periods of time. Their results showed that those who had ASD formed stronger negative associations than those without, but not necessarily more positive ones.
“The idea is that we all need to know what’s good and bad, what’s better and worse, what to approach and what to avoid. Memory helps us do that by giving us information about the consequences of past experiences,” said Dr Catherine Sebastian from the Department of Psychology at Warwick University. “If a memory is bad then we want to remember it so that we know how best not to behave in future. If a memory is of something good then we want to remember it so that we know what to look out for again. For individuals with autism, their memories are skewed towards the negative, which means they may miss opportunities to learn positive social behavior.”
This suggests that on top of struggling with basic memory formation due to impaired executive functions (such as long-term planning), people with ASD also have difficulties forming positive memories. This is just one of the many reasons that the disorder, which affects 1 in 68 children , continues to be a topic of much interest among scientists.
“We’d like to gain an improved understanding of what kinds of interventions might help improve learning and memory for people with autism spectrum disorders,” said Dr Sebastian. “For example, we want to look at whether giving more time between learning something and being tested on it could help someone with autism better remember positive information.”
So while ASD individuals may not recall positive memories as well as those without, it’s equally important to remember that their brains can still be taught to form positive associations. The difficulty is only in the training; once trained, their memory for both negative and positive information becomes indistinguishable from others.
Clearly, more research is needed to determine the best method for treating memory problems in ASD individuals, but this study represents an important step forward.