This is a four-part series on Episodic Memory and how it effects individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
Memory is important for everyone in terms of learning, growing and managing more complex social and emotional situations in life. We use our memories to build and strengthen relationships, to reflect on what we’ve done in order to make plans for the future, and to problem solve based on past experiences. If we didn’t have memories to draw from, we would hardly move forward in life. Developing meaningful memories is a critical skill for all people including children with autism.
Imagine this: you spend the day in Boston with a friend. You take the T there, walk around Faneuil Hall, do a little shopping on Newbury Street, have lunch in the North End and visit the swan boats in the Public Garden. In that one day, the memories formed and memories used span a variety of topics. You probably remember the things that you talked about with your friend or the laughter that you shared, more than you remember any particular item that you looked at while shopping. Or you probably remember how good your meal tasted, but maybe not the other items that were listed on the menu. Maybe when you got to the swan boats there was a line and you used your memories of waiting in other lines to appraise how long you might need to wait in this line. Each of these memories is an example of episodic memory.
Episodic memory refers to one’s autobiographical memory. As we move and do things throughout our life, we are creating a story about ourselves. We use this self narrative to share our experiences with others and to negotiate new situations in the future. Without memories to pull from, the world would be a scary place; any new situation would leave us feeling lost. With episodic memory, we can enter a new situation and figure out what to do because we remember a similar situation from our past. Now imagine you took that same trip to Boston with a child who has ASD. His memories may instead be the names of the T stops you rode through, how loud the restaurant was and the anxiety he felt waiting in line to go on the swan boats because he didn’t know how long he was going to have to wait. What is meaningful moment-to-moment to a child with ASD may be different from what is meaningful to another person. Instead of forming memories that will later help with problem solving and planning, a child with ASD may be forming memories that lead to fear of the unknown. Developing episodic memory is difficult for people with autism, yet it is a critical skill needed for living an independent, happy and stress free life. It is also one of the foundations of the RDI® Program, and something we continually keep in mind at our practice.
The next parts in this series will discuss how to help a child with ASD develop episodic memory to experience share, problem solve and develop peer relationships.