Health and Medicine

Memory and sense of self may play more of a role in autism than we thought

The ConversationIt’s well-known that those with autism spectrum disorders including Asperger’s syndrome develop difficulties with social communication and show stereotyped patterns of behaviour. Less well-studied but equally characteristic features are a weaker sense of self and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. These are connected with a weaker ability to recall personal memories, known as autobiographical memory.

Research now suggests that autobiographical memory’s role in creating a sense of self may be a key element behind the development of autistic characteristics.

Autism is much more common in men than in women, to the extent that one theory of autism explains it as the result of an “extreme male” brain, where autistic females are assumed to be more masculinised. Historically, however, research participants have been predominantly male, which has left gaps in our knowledge about autism in women and girls. Psychologists have suggested that the criteria used for diagnosing autism may suffer from a male bias, meaning that many women and girls go undiagnosed until much later in life, if at all

What We Remember Of Ourselves

This is supported by research that suggests women with autism develop different characteristics than autistic males – particularly in respect to autobiographical memory.

Personal memories play a key role in many of the psychological functions that are affected in those on the autistic spectrum. Personal memories help us form a picture of who we are and our sense of self. They help us predict how others might think, feel and behave and, when faced with personal problems, our past experiences provide insight into what strategies we might use to cope or achieve our goals. Sharing personal memories in conversation helps us to connect with others. Recalling positive memories when we feel down can help lift us up, while dwelling on negative personal memories can induce depression.

What’s become clear from studies of autobiographical memory in autism is that while those with autism may have an excellent memory for factual information, the process of storing and recalling specific personal experiences, such as those that happened on a particular day in a particular place, is much more difficult. Instead, their memories tend to record their experience in general terms, rather than the specifics of the occasion. This might be due in part to their more repetitive lifestyle, in which there are less occasions that stick out as memorable, but also because they are less self-aware and less likely to self-reflect. However, our research suggests that this memory impairment may be exclusive to autistic males.

Missing or indistinct memories can add to the sense of otherness, confusion and anxiety experienced by autistic people.Lightspring/shutterstock.com

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