Short-Term Memory

A parent wrote in to the OASIS online group (for parents of AS/HFA children: OASIS) asking for suggestions on how to help her son with "short-term memory problems" he was having at school.

I wrote:
It may help to remind the school folks that a lot of AS short- term, memory problems actually result from our difficulty in switching attention from one focus to another. I know there are many times when someone who comes up and starts talking to me (e.g., my boss at work) perceives me as behaving normally -- i.e., listening to what he is saying. But in fact what I am doing is making the switch from my previous focus. I am unable to "take in" what is said to me while I am doing that work (making the switch), so I have learned to ask people to repeat whatever they said to me while I was "otherwise engaged" and only appeared to be available to hear their words. Your son may not have figured out that this is happening to him, or he may not have learned to ask that the "missing bits" be repeated for him. He needs to be given the time he needs to switch from one focus to anther.

Then the parent wrote back to clarify that her son has trouble responding when he is asked questons like "What did you have for lunch today?" or "who did you play with at recess?"

So I wrote:
This sounds a lot like B when he was young. He never was able to respond "adequately" to questions. He still doesn't do it well now, come to think of it, and he's almost middle-aged. The reason his responses seem inadequate, I think, is that nobody recognizes the amount of energy the process takes for him (and for many or most of us on the autism spectrum).

Like a lot of us (ASers), B operates much of the time by inertia. We can be regular beavers (unstoppable beavers!) when we are doing something that interests us a great deal. But it's agonizingly hard for us to get started on anything that doesn't spark our interest. All motivation has to be internal. Something has to turn the engine on, or else we are stuck pushing not only our bodies but also our minds by brute force up a very steep hill.

When someone asked B-as-a-child an "easy" question like "what did you have for lunch," his first problem was that he was not (at the moment of the questioning) at all interested in what he had for lunch. His engine remained "dead" to that question, so it would be a tremendous amount of work for him to analyze it (the words), dig through his un-awakened mind for some appropriate response, and then put together the words required to articulate the answer. Instead, nine times out of ten, he responded simply, "I don't know." or "I don't remember." In fact, he didn't remember, because to remember would have required a lot of work. AS minds don't seem to have the capacity for multi-focus, multi-tasking, or trivia-retrieval that NT minds excel at. What's "easy" for an NT person is hard work for us. And sometimes we just don't have the will or the energy we'd need to overcome our inertia.

When B was in high school, he went on a trip abroad with some members of his class. Everyone was delighted for him and eager to hear all about it. Alas, when he got home, he had nothing to say. "How was it?" someone would ask, and he would reply, "Okay." Only much later did we get to hear any of his stories from the trip, which he could (and did) tell very graphically when and if he was inspired to do so by some internal cause. Until he was ready, though, the "cost" of retrieving those memories and putting them into words was prohibitive for a young ASer faced with the strain of getting through the day-by-day challenges of life and school.

B's experience is true for a great many AS people, I think.