SOME AUTISTIC PEOPLE HAVE MEMORY ADVANTAGE FOR CERTAIN TASKS
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new study suggests that some people with autism may have a better memory when performing certain tasks than do non-autistic people.
Researchers found that subjects with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) performed better on a "false-memory" test than did normal control subjects. People with ASD have an impaired ability to use context; in this case, that inability improved the ASD subjects' ability to recognize which words had been on a word list.
The normal subjects were more apt to have false memories - they thought that they recognized words that were in fact not on the list. But these "wrong" words tended to fit the context of the list.
"The false-memory test is a good way to detect impairments in context," said David Beversdorf, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of neurology at Ohio State University. "The test taker does better if he doesn't use context."
The research appeared in a recent issue of the journal
The researchers enlisted eight adults with ASD and 16 non-autistic adult controls in the study. All subjects took a "false memory" test: they listened to a total of 12 words from each of 24 word lists and, after hearing each list, were asked whether or not certain words had been on the list.
For example, the subjects heard the following list of words: thread, pin, eye, sewing, sharp, point, prick, thimble, haystack, thorn, hurt and injection. After listening to the list, the researchers gave each subject a seven-item recognition test. One word - called an index word - was closely related to the list, but was not on the list ("needle," in this case). Two words were on the list; two were not on the list but were related to the index word; and two were unrelated to the index word.
The main difference between the subjects with ASD and those without is that those without the disorder were more likely to have thought they had heard the index word and related words on the list.
The results are promising for people who have ASD but otherwise function normally, Beversdorf said.
"Some people with ASD have unusually high memory capacities," he said. "And in certain circumstances, high-functioning adults with ASD do appear to have better memory performance than do normal adults.
"Our use of context helps us in most situations - that's why the index words confused some of the control subjects," Beversdorf said. "Autistic people don't use context as well; and that helped them during the test."
But the same mechanism that allowed the subjects with ASD to perform so well on the false memory test may impair their performance in daily life. "Context is crucial for some forms of learning, problem solving and determining appropriate responses in a particular social setting," Beversdorf said.
"Even so, high-functioning autistic individuals have the intellectual capacity to do certain jobs very well," he said. "If we could define what things they are good at, we may be able to show employers, who could reap the benefits of a wonderful worker."
This research was supported by a grant from the Stallone Fund.
Beversdorf conducted the study with Brian Smith of Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Mass.; Gregory Crucian and Jeffrey Anderson, both with the University of Florida department of neurology, Gainesville; Jocelyn Keillor, Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, Toronto; Anna Barrett, University of Pennsylvania department of medicine; John Hughes, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda; Gretchen Felopulos, department of child psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; Margaret Bauman, department of pediatric neurology at MGH; Stephen Nadeau, geriatric research, education and clinical center, Department of Veterans Administration Medical Center, Gainesville; and Kenneth Heilman, neurology services, Department of Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Contact: David Beversdorf, (614) 293-8531; Beversdorf.firstname.lastname@example.org