Do People with Autism Make Reliable Eyewitnesses?

Autism (ASD) can affect many cognitive functions. Memory, the ability to recall certain details and events, is one cognitive process that can be impaired as a result of ASD. When individuals are exposed to events that elicit strong emotions, such as disasters, abuse, and violence, they are usually able to recall the details of those events more vividly than they can events that were less emotionally stimulating. For instance, witnessing a car accident in childhood may leave a bigger impression on someone than getting ice cream with a friend. However, it is theorized that people with ASD do not process memories in this manner because their emotional responses are skewed, making them unable to recall events as accurately as those without ASD. When time elapses, retrieving the details of such an event can become more challenging for individuals with ASD.

To test the theory of whether people with ASD make good eyewitnesses, Katie L. Maras of the Department of Psychology at City University London recently conducted a series of experiments involving people with and without ASD. Maras used slide depictions and video presentations of emotionally neutral events and emotionally arousing events. Participants were asked to recall the details of the events immediately after they viewed them and again several days later. During this time, unsolicited recall was documented as well.

Contrary to existing theories, the results of Maras’ study showed that individuals with ASD were able to recall the emotionally arousing events nearly as well as those without ASD. Although they exhibited general deficits, such as remembering more slowly and making more mistakes, they did process the arousing events as more memorable than the neutral events, which is similar to the way those without ASD process these types of events. Maras notes that even though the experiments in her study narrowed the variability of recollection cues and influences, they open the door for additional questions. “The type of material, mode of presentation, and delay between study and test varies considerably across the few relevant studies to date, and future studies should seek to vary these factors systematically,” Maras said. She added that the existing data is still unclear, and efforts should continue in order to better understand what factors contribute to memory recall in those with emotional deficits.

Maras, Katie L., Sebastian B. Gaigg, and Dermot M. Bowler. Memory for emotionally arousing events over time in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Em 12.5 (2012): 1118-128. Print.

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  • Andrea


    November 7th, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    I think they can make good eye witnesses – my son can tell you what colour shirt or jacket, what colour and style of hair, what colour trousers someone was wearing but not their name !!

  • dalton


    November 7th, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    I say this not at all meaning to offend nor knowing that much about autism in general but: how do we expect someone with autism who clearly much of the time is in their own little worlds to make a reliable eyewitness to an event?
    I suppose that there are some autistic people who are relatively high functioning and that they could possibly provide information that is reliable and accurate but I think that I would err on the side of caution in a case like this.

  • brandon


    November 7th, 2012 at 1:26 PM

    Yes there may be inaccuracies and details not as many but it would be wrong to completely disregard autistic individuals as eyewitnesses.its not like they’re going to forget the entire episode of an emotionally arousing event!

  • Zemanski


    November 7th, 2012 at 7:02 PM

    Each and every person with autism has a different way of processing their senses.
    Some, function extremely well, can recall and express events and scenes accurately, often more accurately then other people. They may be able to do this quickly or they may need more processing time than others. Some recall all memories as if they are actually in the moment – they relive them often visually like running a video through their minds, some even experience the emotions as if they were there. These people make exceptionally good witnesses.
    Other people on the spectrum are not able to do this, and there are many reasons why this might be the case; emotionally salient information may overload the person, as may any external sensory stimuli either at the time of the event of during the recall so that the person either can’t recall accurately or becomes so distressed by the recall that they block it. Another feature of recall on the spectrum is the difficulty with seeing the gestalt, or overall picture – autistic people are very, very good at seeing the detail but often unable to put that detail together to make a coherent scene. They may know what each and every person was wearing but have no idea of what age they were, or what role they played; or perhaps they have heard and can recall every word but not in the right order or context to make it useful.
    On top of this at both ends of the “reliable witness” scale people on the autism spectrum almost always have comorbid conditions that can either enhance their abilities or interfere with them – for instance many have prosopagnosia and can’t process faces which means they miss not only the features but also the expression on a face which clouds how they can access the emotional salience of an event – if you can’t see whether someone is threatening or friendly then you can’t tell what they are really intending.

    My rather long-winded point is that, unless you know how a person with an ASC functions it is almost impossible to say whether or not they will be a good witness. As with any other group of people, some will have stronger skills in this area than others.

  • Nicole


    November 7th, 2012 at 11:25 PM

    1 of the most imp things to remember is that the same autism may be present at different levels and of different severity in different people.

    So v cannot really go ahead and say its okay to have an autistic eyewitness or say that it’s not okay. So maybe the eyewitness could be tested to check if their recounting skills are reliable. That’s d only way I see how we can satisfy both sides.

  • Andrea


    November 8th, 2012 at 6:38 AM

    So true – some with high functioning ASD may have excellent recall but others may not just as in the general population but it would be wrong to say that all people with Autism would make unreliable witnesses.

  • farrah


    November 9th, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    My fear is that a good attorney would make mincemeat of someone with sutism if they ever had to hit the witness stand. I know how people’s biases go, and even when you are fairly well educated you atill make the assumption that this person’s story will not be reliable all because you think that someone with autism wouldn’t be able to handle this. I think that there is enough evidence to the contrary that shows that they are capable of more reliability than we may have thought, but a dirty lawyer won’t care about that. he or she will feed into the fears and prejudices that already exist and make it next to impossible for anyone to belive the veracity of their story.

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