What Is Working Memory & How Does It Relate to Autism?

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An estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide have autism spectrum disorder or ASD. That’s more than 75 million people. These numbers are also consistent in children. In fact, in the US, they’re even higher! This number will continue to grow as neurodivergence becomes more widely discussed and loses its stigma. How can a parent help an autistic child thrive despite their differences? Where possible, equip your child to cope with how their brain works. Even more so, from a young age, parents can help them improve in areas they naturally struggle. One of these areas is working memory.

Working memory is vital for many day-to-day functions. It affects everything from learning abilities to social interaction. This guide will look at how working memory differs for people with ASD and why. We’ll also discuss some of the most common signs that your child is struggling with working memory. And most importantly, we’ll explain practical steps you can take to help them.

What is Working Memory?

You’ve probably heard of short-term memory, the brain’s ability to temporarily store and recall information. Well, “what is working memory?” you might ask – it’s actually a close cousin of short-term memory. Although they both involve holding on to information for a short period, working memory stands out because it allows us not just to recall, but also to apply the information we’re storing (that’s why it’s called “working”!). Some activities that involve working memory include:

  • Listening to and remembering a series of instructions
  • Listening to someone’s account of their day
  • Recalling what was said in a conversation
  • Remembering an address while taking directions
  • Mental mathematical calculations
  • Paraphrasing information or conversations

Working memory is a crucial executive function in our brains. For individuals with autism, the world can feel very different due to challenges faced with autism and memory. So, it’s essential to support and understand their unique needs to help them navigate daily tasks that involve working memory. Goally is designed to do just that – catering specifically to children with ADHD and/or Autism, providing tools to help boost their working memory skills and thrive in everyday life.

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Is Working Memory Different in Children with Autism?

Ever wondered if working memory is different in children with autism? Well, let’s dive into it! Working memory takes place in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is responsible for executive functions like impulse control, concentration and, of course, working memory. Interestingly, the PFC in individuals with autism has more neurons. However, despite having more neurons, the PFC is less active when it comes to using working memory in those with autism and memory challenges.

Although scientists haven’t established a direct link between these two phenomena, brain scans clearly indicate that some sort of executive function issue in the PFC affects the effectiveness of working memory in children with autism.

what is working memory little kid playing game on phone
Read more: Free Printable Visual Cue Cards for Autism

How can you tell if this is the case for your child? Some common signs that can help you identify if your child struggles with working memory are: 

Difficulty Remembering and Following a Set of Instructions

This is one of the most common problems experienced by poor working memory. Because people with working memory issues struggle to hold on to and then apply information, and it’s easy to get lost halfway.

You may ask your child to do three things before bed. They only do two, and the oversight wasn’t deliberate. They simply couldn’t retain all three tasks while carrying out the first two. 

Making Small Avoidable Mistakes In Complex Tasks

Similarly, even brilliant children may make simple mistakes when following instructions. From the outside, it appears they were lazy or not trying hard enough. But poor working memory is more likely to blame.

While trying hard to retain the list, they can’t fulfill each task to the best of their ability. Their working memory is overloaded.

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Inefficient Memory Strategies

As children grow older, they may begin to recognize that they struggle with memory. Then they start to, either deliberately or subconsciously, develop memory strategies. However, these are often very inefficient. They can inhibit their ability to work well. For example, repeating instructions is a common memory strategy for autistic children. This takes up even more bandwidth in the brain, which gets in the way of doing the tasks well.

Difficulty Prioritizing One Task Over Another

Several studies have shown that working memory difficulties affect decision-making and prioritizing. In one particular study, researchers gave children two tasks. The researchers told the children to concentrate on one while ignoring the other. Children in the study with ASD were not able to do so. Measured brain activity showed that they continued to focus on both tasks. They couldn’t shift their attention. In day-to-day life, this may present as difficulty switching from one task to another. It also manifests when they have to follow several instructions, as previously explained.

Frequent Inattentiveness

Constantly struggling to process information is exhausting. Classrooms can come with overwhelming feelings of comparison in ability. These factors can make children inattentive. They are mentally taxing, and children may zone out to have a period of peace.

what is working memory little kids playing with camera
Read more: 7 Working Memory Examples in Kids

Easily Distracted Due to Working Memory Issues

This translates to becoming an easily distracted child. Difficulty maintaining attention, combined with difficulty prioritizing, means children jump between tasks. They were unable to maintain their concentration.

Difficulty Staying on Task

This may present as difficulty staying on or finishing tasks in a classroom setting. Being easily distracted means they may jump between tasks in class or stop paying attention altogether.

This likely isn’t deliberate. Instead, it’s a subconscious coping mechanism to manage the mental load they’re under.

Disorganized Due to Working Memory Issues

Difficulty retaining and applying information often makes people with ASD appear disorganized. As well as mentally losing their place mid-task, they may lose their belongings. Something they put down 5 seconds ago seems to disappear as the brain doesn’t retain where they put it.

Difficulty Waiting Their Turn in a Group

Children with ASD may appear impatient in group settings. What’s far more likely, though, is that they can’t recall an agreed-upon sequence of events.

Perhaps they were explicitly told when their turn would come within a group. But that information is quickly forgotten. It gets replaced with feelings of confusion and frustration that manifest as impatience.

People with ASD also often have a heightened sense of justice. So these responses come across even more overtly.

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Difficulty With Mental Mathematics

As applying mentally held information is difficult, this affects mathematic abilities. Remembering a mathematical formula while trying to solve a problem can put too much strain on working memory.

Therefore, even the most intelligent children with ASD may struggle mental mathematics. However, if given a pen and paper so they can track the process, they may be brilliant mathematicians.

Reading and Language Difficulties

Reading and learning languages relate to one’s memory abilities. Remembering new words without any context or meaning requires using the working memory. Children with ASD do much better at learning languages if they are not required to retain too much information immediately but can write it down.

Help Your Child Improve Their Working Memory

Like all memory abilities, working memory is something a child can exercise and strengthen like a muscle. For children with ASD, their starting point is well behind their peers. But you can still help your child make progress. Here are some other ways, besides Goally, to help your child with their working memory:

  • Use simple language when explaining tasks and instructions
  • Gesture and use visual aids when explaining tasks and instructions
  • Reduce distractions such as noise when explaining tasks to them
  • Teach them self-calming strategies for when they feel overwhelmed
  • Connect things they need to remember with other senses or emotions
  • Work on improving their visual memory through interactive games
  • Keep their life as structured as possible

Employing these techniques will help your child be more successful in using their limited working memory. Over time, this builds confidence, allowing children with working memory issues to thrive. 

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Goally Can Support Your Child’s Working Memory

We understand how difficult it can be to give your autistic kiddo the best possible environment, especially in more complex home situations, like co-parenting. That’s why Goally developed tools to help you along the way. Have questions about Goally or working memory in general? Reach out to us in the comments below.

FAQs About What is Working Memory?

What is working memory?
Working memory is a type of short-term memory that involves temporarily storing and actively using information. It is crucial for cognitive tasks like problem-solving, learning, and concentration.

How does working memory affect learning?
Working memory plays a vital role in learning as it helps in processing and retaining new information while connecting it with existing knowledge, enabling a better understanding and application of concepts.

How can visual schedules help improve working memory in children?
Visual schedules provide a clear and organized structure for daily tasks, enabling children to visually process information, which reduces the demands on their working memory and helps them stay focused.

How can emotional regulation apps support working memory?
Emotional regulation apps can help children develop self-control and emotional awareness, reducing distractions and stress, thereby enhancing their working memory capacity and overall cognitive functioning.

How can rewards improve children's working memory?
Rewards can serve as motivating factors that encourage children to engage more deeply in cognitive tasks, resulting in more effective application and development of their working memory skills.

Editor’s note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.

This post was originally published on 10/04/2022. It was updated on 11/22/2023.

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