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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