Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The memory functions of my 10 year old autistic lad with ADHD

Autistic boy sitting on a step and thinking

"I can't find my shoes, where are they, where are they?" screams Anthony as he races through the house. Anthony needs to be reminded to put his shoes in the hall when he takes them off. He can never remember where else they might be and has huge difficulty actually seeing them even when in plain sight. It's like directing a blind folded person to an object on the floor sometimes.

He can't remember where his shoes are, or his reading book, or his favourite toy or the remote control (that is actually still in his hand).

Part of the time I think this is more difficult for him because of his ADHD, and then other times I'm surprised by his memory.

For anything to be remembered for more than a few seconds or minutes (for it to be turned from a short term memory into a long term memory) it needs to be encoded in our brain. What you experience is broken down into component parts and stored for recall later.

If you can't remember something it means it's either not been stored to start with or you are having trouble recalling it. For example instead of recalling a memory from blank you may recall through recognition. This could be remembering which way to go because you recognise a route or spotting an answer on a multiple choice test. You may also remember through relearning, so suddenly remembering how to set the TV box to record once you have been shown again.

The more you access memories or relive them the stronger they are and easier it is for your mind to recall them.  Your mind brings together the same components that make it up. If you have a strong emotional attachment to the memory it's also easier for you to recall.

Anthony gives up looking for things almost immediately and the same goes for recalling information. We have to summarise the previous parts of his bedtime stories most nights.  I think part of this is he's not really paying attention and encoding the memory in the first place. But I was surprised to hear the other day that he remembered some things from years ago very well.

Anthony is nearly ten years old so it was easily more than half his life ago that he went to nursery. He came out with this information the other day after being collected from school. We were talking about the possibility of him going to another school soon - one that he can understand more of his lessons. Jane, who is currently in reception, would still stay at the same school.

He was then able to tell me:
  • Before school he and Jane went to different nursery schools
  • He went there early in the morning before I went to work
  • He had breakfast there, Weetabix a lot of the time
  • It wasn't very far from our old house and was near to where his grandparents now live
  • There was a boy there named Henry
  • That David, his younger brother, also went there for some of the time but then went to a nursery down the dual carriage way
Along with a few other facts (ha, that I've since forgotten). Admittedly I was quite impressed by these memories. Anthony attended the nursery for about two years, but it's fair to say that as a child with ASD he wasn't talking very much and appeared to shy away from and not interact with the world around him a lot of the time. 

I've seen several studies that look at the differences in the way children with autism and ADHD learn and what happens in their brain while they are taught how to do a simple task, for example maybe learning a sequence to open a box. Children with autism often appear to take in a lot of the information each time they are shown the task and it has been suggested that this is because it's not being stored quickly. I wonder though if they may be able to remember how to open the box years later?  I don't know how my son's mind works differently but I think what he can do sometimes is amazing. 

It won't be long before it's time for me to collect him from school today. Here, he appears to be unable to tell me what he has done at school at all. Most parents would say the same thing but I honestly think Anthony can't recall what he did just five minutes before I arrived.

At least we can help him by reminding him to put things back so he doesn't have to panic when he can't find his shoes again. And we can try to 'jog' his memory using the recognising and relearning methods. It's something we all probably practice. In a few minutes I'll wander round the house trying to remember what I did when I came in earlier, so I can find my car keys.

Do you have difficulty remembering things or have you been surprised by something well remembered recently?


  1. I'm always amazed by what our autistic girl can remember too - maybe it's partly hereditary, as her Dad remembers loads of dates ;) Sadly I have a memory like a sieve ever since getting birth - well for anything that has gone on any time before. I think that's because I am trying to retain all the info like what's happening next week and where the shoes and remotes have been put etc ;)

  2. The me,pry really is such a funny thing with the things it stores and the things it doesn’t. I’m Dyslexic and really struggle with short term memory - much to the frustration of everyone else in the house. Yet I can still tell you the strengths and struggles of children I taught 15 years ago. X

  3. This is really interesting to read. It's something I've been reading a lot about recently as my son is struggling. A great post xx #coolmumclub

  4. The Tubblet is terrible at forgetting where she puts things but so am I. We're both Dyslexic so that might explain it

  5. It's really interesting probing the kids on what they can and can't remember. I think with Tigs she remembers really vivid things from way before I'd expect, like being bitten by my Mums cat when she was one, but she can't remember her first nursery. Odd. I did recall having a significant parenting moment when I realised she was probably old enough to be forming solid memories - it was a real distinct change from the baby days which would fade away into the abyss.
    Thanks for sharing your interesting perspective on memories when autism is involved... I wonder how much of it is personality and how much is the autism. I guess as we are all so unique you'll never fully know.
    Thanks for sharing with #coolmumclub

  6. My little boy has ASD and he too cannot remember where anything is. His shoes are always in the same place every morning, on the shoe rack but he still asks me where they are every single morning. Its tough going sometimes but like you say, their brains just work differently. I'd love to know more about what goes on in there. #KCACOLS


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What is Autism?
It's so much I couldn't possibly try and explain. For us it's wonderful and heart-breaking. Joyous and truthful. But as far as diagnosis is concerned, why not have a look at the National Autistic Society for their definition of Autism.
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