Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Aspie Memory

One of the defining traits of aspergers syndrome is the "photographic-memory" whereby aspies can recall with precision events and conversations that are years old and forgotten by the other participants. As with all aspie traits, they differ from one person to another. Indeed some aspies claim to not have this memory - this could be true or it could be the result of misleading information in the Asperger's books which don't really describe the condition well.

The Filmographic, not Photographic Memory
First of all, I want to redefine the terminology. It is more correct to say that the aspie has a filmographic rather than photographic memory. This means that the memory is more like watching a film than recounting items in a picture.

I'm not convinced that an aspie would do especially well in those psychological tests where they remove objects behind a screen. In fact, because we're talking about short term memory there, I think an aspie would do considerably worse.

What Aspies can't easily Remember
The aspie has trouble with short-term memory and with non-visual memory. In particular, the aspie has trouble remembering the things that people tend to tell them in mid-conversation.
  • Names

  • Birthdays

  • Dates and Times of Events

  • Shopping Lists

  • Specific Lists of Items (eg: Periodic Table)


Of course, any lists associated with special interests seem quite easy to learn.

The Mysterious Disappearing Short-Term Memory
Things that seem to be in the aspie's memory have a way of disappearing suddenly until they make it to long term memory. Quite frequently (more than usual as I get older), my words are disappearing mid-sentence and I have to say - "nope, sorry ... it's gone". It's quite embarrassing.

It's not age though (I'm 38), this has happened throughout my life. In particular at school, I remember losing teachers names. I'd always be too embarrassed to tell the teacher that I had no idea of their name, so I'd keep quiet in the hope that I'd catch it at some point.

My eldest son (7) is in first class. He knew his teacher's name before he started first term because we drilled it into him. He knew her name for the first few weeks. Then, suddenly he lost it and had to ask her on several occasions what her name was. Luckily now, he seems to have got it again.

I'm not sure if this phenomena is associated only with names and lists or whether it applies to other types of learning, such as pencil grip, letter writing and swimming. There are signs that it could be (my son will get his letters and numbers perfect for a while but then will slip back into writing things backward). Sometimes he forgets how to write his name too.

I'll have to have a rethink before I can confirm either way.

Recording and Playback
This is where the aspie memory really comes into its own...

During activities, even those where the aspie doesn't appear to be concentrating, they're taking everything in. Not just words, but expressions, feelings, touch, temperature, the whole lot. Those memories are then easily accessible and can be played back "in the aspie's head".

At university I used to sit in lectures and draw pictures instead of taking notes. People used to ask to borrow my notes only to discover that I didn't have any - well, not notes that they could understand at any rate. The funny thing was, that when I got to an exam, all I had to do was to think of the drawing and it would bring the whole lecture back. I could look at (or just remember) certain parts of the drawing and this would open up the memory of what the lecturer was covering at the time.

I did very well in University and got a few High Distinctions, so obviously the method worked. Of course, by that that stage I was old enough to have a pretty good handle on how my memory worked. It wasn't quite so easy in school.


How young does it start?
Well strangely enough it starts in the pre-talking years. I know this for two reasons, firstly because I have some vague memories of my own babyhood and secondly (more importantly) we had an incident with my son which proved the point.

When you're a new parent with a child below talking age, you have a lot of one-sided conversations where you talk "AT" your child in the hope that they will retain some information and explanations. I had quite a few such conversations with Kaelan (my eldest).

Looking at him immediately afterwards, I thought he hadn't taken anything in. For a start, he didn't seem to remember objects (eg: didn't know where to point when I asked "Where is the Television?") after a long conversation about it.

Imagine my surprise when more than a year later, when he had developed enough language skills to talk; he repeated our conversation almost verbatim.

Closing thoughts
I could go on about memory, but this post is getting long. In a future post, I'll cover ways in which aspies can use their memory. What works for me to get things into long-term storage and how aspies can become convincing liars or cover up emotional sore-points by planting false memories on top of true ones.

16 comments:

Anonymous Ghost Writer said...

I realise that it is a bit late in the day for a comment on this post but here it is.

I wish to bring a to the fore for anyone who is looking here for some insight into their own way of being, that other memory based mental health conditions may interfere with and distort what has been stated here. The one of which I have the greatest experience is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Complex PTSD. CPTSD can cause the sufferer to relive a traumatic period in their life over and over to the point where they as a defence mechanism block out all memories associated with the event. This coupled with the 'Filmographic' memory and social difficulties can lead to memories of events years later being blocked out as well.

An example may be of someone who was constantly beaten behind a shed may sub-consciously block out the memory of the beatings. However PTSD triggers by familiar events and surroundings, so let’s say that the reaction is caused by sheds in general. Now if I were to tell that person something near a shed their mind may very well block out all memory of the event and what I told them because it may lead back to the memory of the beatings. This may lead the individual to believe that they have a terrible memory when it is in fact the exact opposite.

CPTSD can be started unlike PTSD by many what would otherwise be considered minor events endured repeatedly and constantly over an extended period. It is well noted that AS and similar 'disorders' invite bulling and abuse from other elements of the community especially during the school years. This could lead to entire sequences of a persons life being physically blocked because it comes to close to bullying that they received in social situations long before. What may otherwise be considered a bad memory may in fact be a last ditch attempt by the brain to protect itself from a trauma long since past.

This could possibly explain some who claim not to have this memory characteristic, although I hope that no one takes from this post that memory is an integral part of Asperger’s.

Raechel Celeste Kitchens said...

That is exactly like me.
Especially in regard to your "note taking"..
I would always doodle/draw during the entire period [it almost felt like a sort of stimulation to let out my thoughts/visions on paper] and I'd look back and was able to recap everything through different parts of my drawings/doodles. I still do the same. I doodle on everything to this day, and when I look at those doodles again I see my past experiences. I tend to have the same triggered type of memory with smells and sounds..sometimes past moments reappear in my mind, and I can't figure out how/why though. The mind is so interesting........ Why? When? How? ...Hmmmmmm......

Bob said...

While I've always had short-term memory problems but great long term memory, this is the most unusual memory problem that I've had during my life.

From a very early age I was fascinated with sounds but particularly the accents of people from different parts of the world. I spent a lot of time watching tv and listening to the different accents and copying them myself along with lots of other vocal sounds including bird and animal sounds.

Even now when I meet people, if they speak differently I have to control myself not to mimic their voice. I did this unknowingly for years and it got me into lots of trouble.

However, when I was about 8 years old, I woke up one morning and had completely forgotten how to speak with my own accent. This was quite frightening and when I spoke I would speak with a variety of mixed accents but not knowing which one I was supposed to stick with or even how to pronounce my words as I had done before.

I thought that my forgetful memory was really going to get me into trouble now. However, my parents weren't too worried as I had always put on different accents and voices and they thought that I was just playing a game. I got a harder time than normal from the other kids at school because of this. They would talk to me just so I would talk back with a strange voice and then they'd laugh at me.

I was quite afraid to talk and spoke minimally until one morning after about 4 weeks, I found that I was talking with a consistent accent again and feeling confident in the way I spoke too. I quickly made a recording of my voice on the cassette recorder in case I forgot my accent again as I would then have a reference to listen to however this problem only ever happened the once. That was 20 years ago, and these days I work as a musician and being able to do voices and accents has got me work in a recording studio working on radio jingles etc.

Mookage said...

Wow, I've really enjoyed reading your post, I've often falsely described myself as having a photographic memory but its actually a filmic. I can walk around and often replay scenes and events in my head and then replay and recall those events on command to the people i'm with. (It's quite useful at work when we need to recall discussions in meetings etc, although most people I work with now know I can do this !). I also work a bit like an Ipod video, and can frequently be watching a movie in my head when out doing something else - having a real Ipod helps with storage space - my wife has started to be able to tell what i'm watching based on the movement of my lips. My son is an officially dignosed asperger and I'm fairly certain he can do the same as he has instant recall of whole episodes of Star Wars:Clone Wars that he has only seen once, and he is only 6. I've rambled, but thanks for the posts. I'll be reading them All. (I'm a self diagnosed - seeking confirmation to support as a parent)

falafaf said...

That's kind of a great description of me. Bein a none aspie I do not remember names, birthdays, bascially Items. All I remember is Filmographic memory, I am kind of shocked about this. Do aspies have poor local senses skills. I'm horrible at knowing where I am located, and I have a sudden fetish for walking the same route again and again to places. Is that an Aspie trait? Great post, Kepp your head up. Just dont be to hard on your kid, it's nothing wrong to forgett things. As I have seen it, it's nothing really important. &Johan

Anita said...

I'm an Aspie, but I don't find myself having problems with memory unless it's convinient to the situation. I write things down in my diary (appointments and lists) and carry around a notepad just in case someone asks me to do something for them.

My memory is pretty good, as long as it deals with something I like to do (I was a TV addict, I knew exactly what was on and when).

At school I'd write stories when in a lecture and get straight A's on tests. I wasn't diagnosed back then. I was just utterly bored with school and didn't try my best as I've could have done so much better. Had I been diagnosed back then, I'd probably have not chosen a social education as follow up (I failed).

Bekka said...

Bah! Disappearing short-term memory! I was so chuffed that I learned how to tie my shoes at a younger age than my brother. Did rather well with it, too. Then all of a sudden, I flipping forgot, and had to wear velcro-closure shoes for about two years before I could get the hang of tying them again. Frustrating as all hell.

Anonymous said...

I finally got a life at 65 when I was diagnosed with aspergers. It explains so much of what has happened and I am ok with it...my worst problem is my memory...too much of it is gone. I do know I spent a lot of time in abusive situations, so these posts help me to understand that part of aspergers. found out this week that I have a grandson that has been diagnosed with it...I am trying to work with my daughter to help her understand..

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this blog page after searching in google. I will be 45yrs old in a fortnight, and am currently seeking to get a formal diagnosis of Aspergers. I have become increasingly anxious, and isolated, and wonder how I ever struggled through all these years, but I have raised 2 children, both are in their 20's, but my adult son still lives with me, as he has ASD/OCD.
For me to get a formal diagnosis would be a huge relief, and would make sense of my past struggles and help me to move ahead having a greater understanding of myself.
It's not easy trying to convince the health authority to take you seriously enough to refer you for a formal diagnosis as a mature adult its it?
I am identifying with what folks have said about accents here, especially 'Bob'. I am smiling to myself as I am best thought of as being the master of accents! I only had to hear an accent and almost involuntarily I'd be mimiking it! And as you say yes it did get me into trouble also, more than once.
I've been asked if I come from Brisbane, as at one point I loved and spoke with an Austrailian accent!
I could speak for ages on this, but had beter finish up.
Thanks for this blog, I'll be reading over some past posts now I've found it.

Anonymous said...

I could have written this post. My notes never made any sense, but if I wasn't dpod ing, I probably wasn't absorbing the information either. This weekend I forgot a very simple word. I'm always doing that, and when I'm searching, it's like searching a Rolodex-visually searching for the word. I've always told people, it's not quite a photographic memory. But I need a trigger to remember it all.

Anonymous said...

I'm quite surprised by this and don't know if I agree with it entirely. I was diagnosed with Asperger's recently (age 20) and have always been excellent at names, phone numbers, and other strings of information, while a lot of visual things are apparently troublesome.

In one of the tests the psychologist gave, I had to look at a picture of some kind of geometric design and copy it while being given different colored markers every few seconds to track what order I did it in. After that, she took the picture and my copy away and had me try to draw it from memory, which was a struggle.

I was later told that I had been drawing the picture in small parts/being more detail oriented (typical of Asperger's) rather than looking at the big picture, which would have made it an easy task.

I do agree, though, about being able to recall specific events very well.

Naomi Dolby said...

Has anyone had problems with short term memory when dealing with every day routine? My 11year old was diagnosed at aged five. He's fantascally clever, a genius with numbers, facts and figures, seemingly photographic memory in subjects that appeal to him (general knowledge, geography and many other subjects, he's obsessed with pokemon too!), but his short term memory is becoming terrible. We've now had to make a list of his every day routine, as he doesn't remember to do things such as go to the toilet, have a drink, get dressed etc, unless we're nagging him! I was wondering if thus is common, or if this is something we need to discuss with a doctor? Any advice would be much appreciated! Thanks fir reading :-)

Lacey Gibson said...

Oh wow...that sounds exactly like me, especially the part about note taking(w/parts of the picture bringing back the memory). I just found out I have aspergers recently and the more I learn about AS the more I discover about MYSELF and although at first when I was told I have AS I was shocked and didnt know how to feel..well now I am learning so much about myself and I am so thankful for the diagnosis, bc its not like it changed anything about me, bc Ive been "the way I am" my whole life, but it has given me the answers to questions ive had about myself for years! Like the memory thing..sometimes when someone is talking to me, I will stare, or look at an object(not purposely its all subconscious I believe..?) but when I think back to that conversation, the object I was staring at/focusing on pops into my head and I can better remember the conversation. I just never thought much about it..kind of thought maybe everyone did that but at the same time had never heard anyone refer to certain random objects to trigger their memory like me. Learn something new about myself everyday! I LOVE your Blog by the way! Thankyou for sharing your experiences it has helped me soo much!

stonesinmyblood27 said...

I have both Aspergers syndrome and have an eidetic memory. I'm 56 years old, have a 152 IQ and can recall weather on any specific date from the early part of my childhood. I've been challenged on this and have proved that I can. I remember in pictures and in a film and I can also recall my moods and feelings along with these memories. Its a lot of fun!!! Contact me at ttseat@aol.com if you want to discuss this with me.

Anonymous said...

This is incredible, I basically read about myself in this post. I have a terrible time remembering names (get halfway through a semester to realise I don't know a professor's name!) as well as birthdays, shopping lists, and other lists of information that have little direct impact on my special interest. I always prided myself on my good memory, and could never understand why I had such a hard time with these types of memory tasks. I have filmographic memory to a T, in fact, that's how I described it to my parents before ever hearing the term; "It's like a film reel in my head." It's why I'm so good at pulling up movie and TV diologue, even after one viewing, because it's imprinted on my brain like a film reel. Amazing.

Another-Aspie said...

Is it sad that while hearing about aspie short term memory issues, I thought, "Hey I have that issue sometimes, I should look this up"

Then promptly forgetting my intention to do so.

Thus re-reading the article I saw it mentioned to try again?

I have huge issues with things like the names until I really care about someone.

I.e. if I'll never see the person again, i'll likely not even remember the name for the time he/she is there.

Or lists/information I care little about.

I'll almost instantaneously forget thins like:

-The first half of a math equation
-Those nonsense word sections of IQ tests
-A number i'm on while counting

All this because I know I won't need that information in about 10 seconds. So My brain figures, why bother storing it.

Give me something I find interesting, and I can recall it easily.

-Funny childhood stories my mom told me
-The entire plot and sometimes dialogues of movies/games I like
-Useless trivia that interests me


My mind and body can work in mysterious ways, and sometimes not for the better, but being an aspie is part of who I am. And I embrace it.