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. 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

  6. I can certainly vouch for having a memory like a sieve sometimes. What was it that I came into the kitchen for? being one of the things I've thought. I've even tried to fit all the weekend into one day before! As a mum though can we call this baby brain? #coolmumclub

  7. Such an interesting read gaining an insight into what it's like parenting a child with ADHD. I have always had issues with memory, I will walk into a room and forget what I was going in there for! Thanks so much for linking up at #kcacols. Hope you come back next time

  8. I think that as I get older or at least more overwhelm (!), I find myself forgetting things. I love your explanation of how memory works. So simple really but so complex! #kcacols

  9. My son doesn't remember things he did the day before (or even what he did at preschool when we're walking home) and then other times remembers stuff from ages ago! Recently, my mum and her partner split up. He had been around for 12 years and was my sons grandad. We stayed in touch for a bit but then he did a few things that meant I had to put contact with him. I decided to just stop mentioning him to my son and hope that he would forget. That was Oct/Nov time, the other day my son mentioned him for the first time. He completely threw me that he remembered. #KCACOLS

  10. I think this might be something that is common among all children. My daughter can tell me with amazing clarity and detail things that happened when she was only one or two. It fascinates me the way their little brains work and how they change as they grow older. #KCACOLS

  11. My nephew has ADHD and when he was younger he could remember the smallest little thing but many things that went into his head would get jumbled around and come out wrong (his words). #kcacols

  12. Son, also ASD with ADHD, regularly reminds me of a gripe he had at just 2 years old 'Every time I said I wanted a biscuit they gave me a crisp'. This was his memory of poorly applied PECS. Though he was verbalising his request they made him use a card but the pictures were meaningless to him and he was impatient. They always gave him what was on the card, instead of what he'd asked for. Bonkers. But he still tells us about it now at age 11.

  13. My son has an incredible memory and remembers EVERYTHING - even from years ago - which can put me in difficult situations as I don't remember as much (especially off-hand promises I may have made long ago!) However, I've had to put systems in place to keep him organised as he doesn't have the executive function ability to think coherently (ie, where did he leave his shoes), although he can clearly remember what you had for Christmas Eve dinner 10 years ago!

  14. This is an interesting read. I work with a boy with ASD and his short term memory and working memory is poor but his long term memory is very good. I wonder if children with ASD take on board details that others may not notice as their senses are different. E,g they may recall how something smelt or what they heard. The boy i work with describes things he sees in ranges of colour and how it feels. E.g the book is a green that feels more blue than the sky and he can see the greens energy. It’s so fascinating. He can’t remember what he has been asked to do in a task but he can describe my top in minute detail. It’s just that his brain is taking on different cues. Does that makes sense? Lovely linky! #spectrumsunday


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