Does autism affect working memory?
Updated: Jun 13
Does your child with autism often have difficulty following instructions? Do they need time to process what one asks them to do? Working memory issues often link to autism.
According to Psychology Today Canada, many lower-functioning autistic people have issues with working memory more than normally developing peers. Still, even some high-functioning autistic people can struggle with working memory.
Why is working memory important?
According to Understanding Working Memory: Second Edition, learning is tough for people with a poor working memory. Classroom tasks such as reading a sentence, finding a page in a textbook, or figuring out a math problem, rely on working memory skills.
Why do some people with autism have working memory problems?
According to Autism Awareness Centre Inc., some sources suggest that 80 per cent of people on the spectrum have executive function disorder. One of the primary symptoms of executive function disorder is working memory difficulties. Apply this to autism, and this explains why some autistic people may remember specific facts about movies that many others may not know but not fully understand basic tasks such as steps to brush their teeth.
Autism Awareness Centre Inc. also says that attention issues, which relates to working memory, can affect a person with autism. Attention issues can especially occur if an autistic person has sensory problems such as getting distracted by lights in a classroom. If a person struggles with focusing, this can affect their short-term memory.
Psychology Today Canada says that of all brain parts, autism largely affectsthe prefrontal cortex (PFC), where working memory occurs. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) with autism has 67 per cent more neurons than a normal person. This enormous neuron growth likely relates to overactive genes controlling neurons.
Tracy Packiam Alloway, a British cognitive psychologist, gives examples of how people with autism can have problems with working memory. For instance, if a child sees another child get hurt, they may have difficulty processing that they are in pain.
What were my working memory issues like in school?
In elementary school, working memory was perhaps my biggest struggle with autism. My educational assistants would frequently prompt me with things such as going to the right textbook page, getting my science duo-tang out, listening to the teacher, following algebra steps and many more. Only with more lively subjects such as gym did I not always need educational assistants to supervise me.
Other kids would sometimes get annoyed if I didn't listen or understood what they said to me while working with me. In severe cases, this would lead to bullying, or they would refuse to sit next to or work with me in the future.
These peer situations would mainly happen whenever there were multi-step instructions. For example, if a peer in a group activity were to ask me, "Cory, go to the library and meet Person A there, then ask them 'Where are they at with the history project?', and then tell me what to write down," I would process maybe two steps and forget what to tell the person when I returned to class. In this case, the first classmate would have wrongfully accused me of being lazy or useless, even if they didn't necessarily tell me that. The reality is, there was only so much information I could process from them.
I got better at this around the time I started high school. A lot of this was because, unlike elementary school, where I always had to be in a room with 25 to 30 kids learning the regular curriculum (With some modifications), I was in the school's Transition program for grades nine and 10. These classes would have closer to 10 to 15 kids and an easier curriculum. In general, I found it easier to "hide" my working memory issues in smaller classroom environments. I also developed self-advocacy skills, focusing skills and researching skills. Because of these skills, it was easier for me to independently find the information I missed from class lectures during high school.
Today, I typically only have big problems with working memory if there is a lot of motor planning involved. For example, when I took Sheridan's Journalism program, I didn't struggle with writing as much as I did with broadcast newsroom equipment. Scrolling with a teleprompter was particularly hard for me a few years ago.
People with autism can have difficulties with working memory. However, like many things in life, these issues can ease with proper supports, staying motivated and working hard to improve.