By guest blogger Dan Carney
Our autobiographical memory is fundamental to the development of our sense of self. However, according to past research, it may be compromised in autism, together with other skills that are also vital for self understanding, such as introspection and the ability to attribute mental states to others (known as mentalising).
For example, experiments involving autistic children have highlighted retrieval difficulties, “impoverished narratives”, and a greater need for prompting, while also suggesting that semantic recall (facts from the past) may be impaired in younger individuals.
Now a UK research team, led by Sally Robinson from London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, has published the first attempt to assess the nature of – and relationships between – autobiographical memory, mentalising and introspection in autism. Reporting their findings in Autism journal, the group hope their results will shed more light on the way that autistic children and teens develop a sense of self.
The researchers compared the performance of 24 autistic participants (age range: 11-18; 4 girls) and 24 age- and gender-matched neurotypical participants on three tasks. The first, designed to tap semantic and episodic aspects of autobiographical memory, required them to recall what kind of personality they showed in different contexts (at school, with the family, when happy etc) and to describe specific episodes from their lives in which they’d behaved as that kind of person.
A second, interview task measured introspection and mentalising: participants rated both their own ability, and that of a nominated comparison individual (such as a friend or relative), to recognise both their own and the other person’s internal/external traits, such as tiredness (internal trait) or smartness of dress (external). For example, in relation to tiredness, participants rated “How well do you know when you feel tired?”; “How well does X know when you are tired?”; “How well do you know when X feels tired?”; and “How well does X know when he/she feels tired?”.
The final task was the widely used mentalising measure, the Reading The Mind In The Eyes Task for children, which involved participants looking at pictures showing only the eye region of person’s face and inferring their mental state.
Overall, the results demonstrated impaired and preserved abilities in the autistic group, while suggesting atypical relationships between skills. In terms of autobiographical memory, the autistic children and teens: a) produced fewer self-descriptive personality traits than the neurotypical group, b) required more prompting to generate specific episodic memories, c) provided fewer memories containing either emotional or sensory detail, but d) did not differ in terms of the number or type of episodic memories recalled.
That the autistic group recalled a typical number of episodic memories, albeit with greater prompting and atypicality of content, is broadly in line with previous work. The recall of fewer own personality traits, however, is a new finding, and is worth investigating further. This may suggest that autistic individuals’ self-concept is atypical.
Meanwhile, on the introspection and mentalising interview, the autistic children and teens (a) rated themselves poorer at knowing about another’s mental state than did the neurotypical group, and b) more surprisingly, they rated others as having more knowledge about their own external/behavioural traits than they did themselves. The researchers suggested that this last finding may betray a lack of confidence in making objective/comparative behavioural judgments – as opposed to subjective internal ones – about the self in relation to others.
Related to this, among the autistic children and teens only, if they rated themselves as having a high level of self-knowledge, they were also more likely to rate others as having a higher knowledge of them. The researchers pointed out that this may highlight the use of introspection as a compensatory strategy in autism, when attributing mental states to others, and that this may play a role in autistic individuals’ documented tendency to over-attribute their own beliefs and knowledge to others.
As expected, the autistic children and teens were poorer than controls on the Eyes Task, another indication of compromised mentalising skills.
There was also a group difference in how the various skills related to each other. In the neurotypical group, performance correlated across the tasks: semantic/episodic autobiographical memory, introspecting and mentalising, which indicates how, in typical development, autobiographical memory has a reciprocal relationship with other aspects of the self-concept. In the autistic children and teens, these correlations were absent, suggesting that this reciprocity between mental processes may be impaired.
Although this study is exploratory and more work is needed, it provides a finer-grained glimpse at how skills associated with self-understanding may interact in autism, and how this may differ from the equivalent processes in typical development.
The new findings may also have implications for autistic children undertaking Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an approach where the recall of autobiographical events is important. CBT is commonly used with autistic people to address anxiety and social skill development. In the new research, the autistic group generated as many episodic memories as controls, after having first described their own personality traits. This may suggest that in CBT with autism, accurate episodic retrieval could be supported by first encouraging individuals to reflect on their own personalities in a more general sense.
Post written for BPS Research Digest by Dr. Dan Carney. Dan is a UK researcher specialising in developmental disorders. He undertook his post-doctoral research fellowship at London South Bank University, finishing in 2013. His published work to date has examined cognition, memory, and inner speech processes in Williams syndrome and Down syndrome, as well as savant skills in autism.