Modern Australian

Children with autism may use memory differently. Understanding this could help us teach them

  • Written by John Munro, Professor, Faculty of Education and Arts, Australian Catholic University

Around one in every 70 Australians are on the autism spectrum. The proportion of children with autism is higher – more than 80% of all Australians on the autism spectrum are aged under 25.

Autism is most prevalent among school-aged children between 5 and 14. Many of these children have social, learning, communication and intellectual difficulties.

The high proportion of children on the autism spectrum presents an obvious challenge to teachers and the learning environment. One way they can respond to it is to examine what we know about how these children understand their world and learn.

How memory works

Children with autism may use memory differently. Understanding this could help us teach them We use our bank of autobiographical memory to tell us how to behave in any situation. from

To understand what we suspect, so far, about the way in which some people with autism may see the world, we need to examine how we use our autobiographical episodic memory – the bank of experiences we have stored in memory.

This bank of experiences tells us how to behave in any situation. It tells us what we did in past, matching situations, where and when events happened, how we felt at the time and how we coped. These are the time-and-place images of our life history.

We use this memory bank to interpret new situations. The memories help us decide how to act socially or functionally, to imagine how someone might feel and what to expect in the future. They help us transfer our behaviours to new situations and adjust how we behave and think based on the context.

We seem to do these things implicitly. We don’t need to plan consciously how we will act in most new situations. In other words, we modify or adapt our stored experiences automatically to fit the situation in which we find ourselves at any time.

Read more: We're capable of infinite memory, but where in the brain is it stored, and what parts help retrieve it?

Theories on autism

The stereotypical behaviours of individuals with autism suggest they don’t use their bank of experiences spontaneously and automatically in these ways.

Emerging research supports this possibility. It suggests people on the autism spectrum could be less likely to reflect on specific experiences, infer from them or recognise regularities in them.

This would then lead to difficulty modifying stored experiences to use later to interpret other everyday situations.

Instead, they may learn experiences and store them in a more fixed way.

People on the autism spectrum, depending on where on the spectrum they are, can have difficulty adapting what they have learnt to changes in context. They may find it harder to predict, anticipate or think flexibly and switch how they will act.

Children with autism may use memory differently. Understanding this could help us teach them Children on the autism spectrum may find it harder to predict, anticipate or think flexibly and switch how they will act. Photo by Limor Zellermayer on Unsplash

At the same time they may be able to learn and recall facts and relationships that are specific, precise and rigid – such as associations between names, symbols and meanings.

Rigidly stored experiences limit the ability to learn and to deal with dynamic social situations. So, people who store memories in this way may be more likely to overreact emotionally and show attention difficulties.

They might also have difficulty linking their experiential knowledge with language. Everyday living, the classroom and the workplace use language as a major vehicle for learning and interacting.

Read more: Young children with autism can thrive in mainstream childcare

How teaching could address this

Episodic memory is stimulated when you are exposed to visual information. People with autism sometimes perform better when given visual tasks.

One way to possibly stimulate episodic memory could be through the use of video-based instruction (VBI). This is where videos are used to demonstrate new knowledge and skills in particular contexts.

One review looked at 36 studies that investigated whether video-based instruction helped children with autism gain social skills. It showed students with autism could more easily learn functional skills and transfer and generalise them.

The videos may help participants recall past similar experiences, say what they did and how they coped, and decide how they would act in unfamiliar situations.

Narrative therapy has also been shown to help people with autism deal with social and emotional issues. This therapy is based on imaginary real-life situations.

The children are taught to actively analyse an everyday episode and to build alternative stories around it, with themselves as a protagonist. They learn to visualise the situation and imagine it changing.

Many students with autism often have difficulty with reading comprehension. Some research shows teaching visualisation strategies to reading underachievers generally enhances reading comprehension.

Children with autism may use memory differently. Understanding this could help us teach them Visualisation strategies can trigger a child’s imagination. from

This directly target’s a child’s ability to imagine. While reading a narrative, for example, a child is told to note how particular characters are feeling and predict what they might do next, as well as to imagine how others might be feeling.

Visualising scaffolds someone’s episodic memory to form virtual experiences of the text being read and to infer in a range of ways about it. This could also help students with autism. They are taught explicitly to create mental images of what they read, comprehension strategies and also to self-regulate and summarise.

Read more: How to identify, understand and teach gifted children

This type of reading intervention for students with autism has been shown to improve links between the verbal and imagery areas of the brain.

Our knowledge of how individuals with autism spectrum disorder know and learn has increased exponentially over the last two decades. Teachers can use some of this knowledge in the classroom, and governments can use some of the emerging evidence to develop programs to help children with autism learn.

Authors: John Munro, Professor, Faculty of Education and Arts, Australian Catholic University

Read more


Domestic abuse or genuine relationship? Our welfare system can't tell

Financial abuse can be misinterpreted as 'sharing finances', which can indicate a relationship in the criteria of the couple rule. ShutterstockIn Australia’s social security laws, the “couple rule” is used...

Friday essay: why old is new again

A Royal Victorian Small Homes House, designed in conjuction with The Age newspaper, 1955. Photo: Wolfgang Sievers. Pictures Collection, State Library VictoriaOf all the mantras for modernism, the one I...

One-third of all preschool centres could be without a trained teacher in four years, if we do nothing

Currently, half of all early childhood teachers have a bachelor degree, with a further one-third still working towards one. from shutterstock.comOne-third of all preschools may lack a qualified teacher in...

Not one but two Aussie dishes were used to get the TV signals back from the Apollo 11 moonwalk

US astronaut Neil Armstrong on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.NASAThe role Australia played in relaying the first television images of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the Moon...

How public libraries can help prepare us for the future

Public libraries can use their status as community hubs to engage the public in scenario planning for the future.Mosman Library/Flickr, CC BYFor generations, libraries have helped people explore knowledge, information...

How our obsession with performance is changing our sense of self

How well we do – at work or on the sports field – influences how we see ourselves.from, CC BY-NDWe live in a society obsessed with performance. For both...

Australian writer Yang Hengjun is set to be charged in China at an awkward time for Australia-China relations

Charges against Yang appear to relate to his work as a writer and blogger in which he has been sharply critical of the Chinese regime. Facebook Australia’s relations with China...

More than 28,000 species are officially threatened, with more likely to come

A giant guitarfish caught in West Papua is hung from a fishing boat. Guitarfish are in trouble, according to the IUCN Red List. Conservation International/Abdy Hasan, Author providedMore than 28,000...

Being a Trump 'bestie' comes with its own challenges for Scott Morrison

It's now widely observed that Morrison and President Donald Trump have struck an early bromance.AAP/Lukas Coch“How good is this?” Scott might have said to Jenny, when word came that he’d...

Australian universities must wake up to the risks of researchers linked to China's military

Two universities are conducting internal reviews of research collaborations linked to the suppression and surveillance of the Uyghur minority in western China.Tracey Nearmy/AAPTwo Australian universities, University of Technology Sydney and...

Biden leading, followed by Sanders, Warren, Harris; and will Trump be beaten?

Joe Biden is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.AAP/EPA/Justin LaneThe next US presidential election will be held on November 3, 2020. Incumbent president Donald Trump will almost certainly be...

Opera Australia's Whiteley brings together 3 icons to tell the artist's complicated story

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia's 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House. The opera focuses on the artist's addictions and his relationship with his wife. Prudence...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

DIY Home Remodelling Ideas That Adds ValueA place where design and functionality come togetherChoosing the Most Efficient and Effective HeatersGo on vacation without letting yourself goStaying Vibrant in Your Golden Years - 6 Tips to Stay HealthyHow to know when it is time to search for family law specialists in Sydney An All-in-one Guide to Buying Women’s Glasses5 advantages of getting an internship through PGP Australia5 Factors That Make All the Difference in Your Bathroom RemodelRelax on the beachIs A Multi-Room Audio System Right For My Home?Male power and food7 Tips for Preparing To Drive Across The NullarborHow to Save Money with Flash Sales