Episodic memory is one of the more difficult core deficits to really grasp and to understand both conceptually and also to know when we see it being remediated in those with autism. First I’m going to give you a quick description of what episodic memory is and then give some examples we have heard or seen in some of our current families. It’s my hope that you’ll be able to recognize the little moments of episodic memory being formed in your child’s life if you are a parent of a child with autism.
Episodic memory can also be know as an autobiographical memory. Think about it as a picture of our past strongly anchored by our emotional memories. Daily we use these pictures of our past to adapt the way we do things now. Those with autism don’t have the ability to readily pull from their past to help them think about how to do thing differently today or to help them remember what the most important part of the memory was supposed to be.
An example of the deficit of episodic memory:
A family of mine shared an experience of going to grandpa’s house. Whenever their son with autism would see grandpa, they would run off to the back yard and do special grandpa time playing with things in the shed. After this boy’s grandfather passed away he continued to run out to the shed when he would go to grandpa’s house and do the same things he would do with his grandpa. The memories of going to grandpa’s house were encoded as playing in the shed. The memories were not being encoded as going to grandpa’s house and playing with grandpa in the shed. Notice the difference? The procedural memory was there, the emotional memory of that being a special moment with grandpa was not.
Examples of seeing episodic memory:
The boy mentioned above (I’ll call him “Sam”) was playing a game of catch with dad. As dad was playing he would occasionally throw the ball away and “Sam” would run and get the ball. After doing this a few times dad would switched locations on “Sam” so “Sam” had to find a new spot to stand in order to continue the game. The second time dad threw the ball away, “Sam” looked back to catch dad in the moment of moving. “Sam” was able to remember dad’s action from before and adjust his actions in the future to catch dad in the action.
“James” gets up at 7:00 a.m. to catch the bus at 7:45. One day he goes out to get on the bus and the bus had shown up at 7:40. He had missed the bus. “James” realized that he needed to do something different in the future to ensure that he wouldn’t miss the bus again. That night he set his alarm for 6:55 to make sure he had plenty of time to get ready. He took a memory from the past, figured out what he needed to do to fix it and applied it to his future! What an awesome discovery for “James”!
It’s critical that we slow things down for those with autism and “spotlight” the moments that are important in the activity so they know what to remember. Simple things like “wow, we made a nice tower” can help to encode memories of doing something with another person and also increase their competence to want to build a tower again in the future. Helping them to solve a problem, or letting them help solve a problem for you can help them to encode memories of coming up with other solutions to challenge. The ideas can go on and on of what we can do to help encode these memories. The most important? Slow life down to speed up.
Next week – flexible thinking!