Memory as a critical domain in autism intervention is overlooked. It is essential to specifically target this fundamental ability in intervention. Memory is a subservient ability in many common exercises, although we may not always be thinking about it’s role in developing certain basic abilities. Furthermore, while we often think of memory as something linked to the past (recall) it is vital to consider memory abilities when developing future directed activities as related to executive function.
We see this very clearly, for example, in early ‘direction following’ abilities (e.g. "Go to the kitchen and get me a cup"). Success with these abilities rests in large part on memory abilities. Several early exercises can be exploited to further strengthen memory abilities in order to better prepare children for such tasks. As we consider this domain, we need to target both auditory and visual memory. We find often, that by first strengthening visual memory, some common difficulties with auditory memory are ameliorated. Eventually, memory marries “attention” as we consider exercises which demand that children remain on task across longer periods of time and distances, with more distraction (executive function).
Below is an exercise which illustrates how we can design intervention with memory as a specific targeted ability. This exercise is a modified version of an exercise from Early Intervention for Children with ASD: Considerations.
An array of pictures are placed on a table at which the instructor and child are seated. In front of the child is a photo album, which contains, interspersed within the album, corresponding pictures.
The instructor points to one of the pictures on the table and says, “Find this”.
“The child flips through the album to find the corresponding picture, points to it and says, “I found it” or “Here it is” (or makes some other appropriate statement).
The point (no pun intended) of this exercise is several-fold. First, it requires that the child attend (jointly) to the item to which the teacher is also attending (joint attention). The child will not be able to find the designated item without following the instructor’s point (ie., there was no specific linguistic referent offered). The instructor is the ‘point of reference,’ and only by attending carefully to the instructor, to that which the instructor attends, can the child succeed. Second, as matched items are buried deeper into the album, the child is required to hold in mind (working visual memory), for longer periods of time, the items they are required to find. Demands on memory, attention to task and to others can be systematically increased by pointing to two pictures and say “Find this and this”.
This is only one exercise of many which needs to be considered when building memory abilities. It is just one example. We can't ask a child to go look for something across a room if they can't find items in a book right in front of him. We won't ask a child to find two things in the back of a book if he can't find one that which is only 3 pages in. This requires systematic training which is systematically stretched to real world applications.
Additional exercises for strengthening early memory and for developing executive function can be found in Early Intervention for Children with ASD: Considerations.