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Children with Autism Found to Have Specific Memory Problems That May Underlie Aspects of the Disorder
American Psychological Association

Differences in spatial working memory and complex visual, verbal memory
may contribute to problems with social interaction, information

WASHINGTON - If children with autism can't see the forest for the trees,
that may be partly because the burden of processing all those trees at
once makes it harder to lock in the scene. Researchers at the
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs
Pittsburgh Healthcare System have found that children with autism differ
from other children in two specific memory capabilities. The research
is in January's Neuropsychology, which is published by the American
Psychological Association (APA).

Researchers including neurologist Nancy Minshew, MD, studied 76 children
from ages 8 to 16. Half were verbal individuals with autism, half were
normal controls matched for age, IQ and gender. The diagnosis of autism
reflected social and communication impairments of the autistic type
along with restricted interests and patterns of behavior.

First, the children with autism, compared to the matched controls, had
poorer memory for complex information (many individual elements or one
complicated element) in both word and picture form. In essence, the
children with autism found it hard to remember information if they
needed a cognitive organizing strategy to aid recall or if they had to
detect such an organizing element in the information itself.

The authors speculate that, "People with autism don't have the automatic
cross talk between brain systems -- the reasoning and the memory systems -- that tells their brain what is most important to notice or how to
organize it thematically."

Second, children with autism also had poor working memory for spatial
information, or remembering over time where something was located once
it was out of sight. Although working memory for verbal information was
fine, a "Finger Windows" subtest of recall of a spatial sequence easily
distinguished between children with and without autism. Spatial working
memory depends on a specific region of the frontal cortex that is known
to be dysfunctional in autism.

Despite these two impairments, the children with autism did not have
global memory problems. They showed good associative learning ability,
verbal working memory and recognition memory. Because their memories
differed in only two specific ways, memory in autism appears to be
organized differently than in normal individuals -- reflecting
differences in the development of brain connections with the frontal

Says Minshew, "If the brain does not, from the start, automatically
identify and store key information, that seriously impairs the capacity
to interact, communicate and solve problems. Children with autism can
be easily overwhelmed by the complex information in most everyday

She explains how these memory problems can affect behavior. "Typical
people automatically notice and focus on what's important or relevant,"
she says. "But because people with autism focus on details instead,
they can't recall or respond to what most people think is important."

Let's say some teenagers see a poster for a new movie about a small-town
romance. They talk about going to the movie and joke about the love
story. One boy, though, interrupts with how great it will be to see a
football film. Hearing this seeming non sequitur, the other kids stop
talking. The boy, who has autism, doesn't understand why they aren't
interested in what he is saying. He was responding to what he saw - not
the larger-than-life stars embracing, but the small background detail of
a man in a football jersey.

Minshew and her colleagues believe that a growing appreciation of memory
deficits and their impact on social function in autism will extend
research beyond the traditional diagnostic triad of the social, language
and reasoning problems. The Pittsburgh group has, in prior studies,
found autism-related problems with motor, sensory and balance systems.
"With autism, there seems to be a widespread problem with how the brain
copes with or processes all types of information," Minshew says. Thus,
she urges scientists to look more broadly at the brain in autism to find
whatever causes such widespread involvement.

Source: American Psychological Association. The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Article: "The Profile of Memory Function in Children with Autism,"
Diane L. Williams, MD, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine;
Gerald Goldstein, MD, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and
Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System; Nancy J. Minshew, MD,
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Neuropsychology, Vol. 20,
No. 1.

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