By guest blogger Dan Carney
A key feature of interviews is open-ended questioning inviting the recall of past experiences and memories — what psychologists call “autobiographical” memory. Having to provide this information accurately and coherently, combined with the stress of the situation, can often make being interviewed a demanding and uncomfortable experience.
That is especially true of autistic people, who may have difficulties with both autobiographical memory and open-ended questioning. Many autistic people report job interviews as a major barrier to employment, and it’s possible that interview difficulties may also be compounding, or partially causing, problems in legal and healthcare contexts where open-ended interviews requiring autobiographical recall are a common feature. Autistic people are more likely to be involved in criminal investigations, for instance, and to experience physical and mental health difficulties.
Now, in a paper published in Autism, a team led by Jade Norris from the University of Bath has examined techniques that may help autistic people in these situations. Thirty autistic and thirty typically developing (TD) adults were given eighteen questions asking them to recall specific life events relating to common scenarios across three contexts: criminal justice (e.g. “tell me about a specific instance when… you went to the bank”), healthcare (e.g. “…you vomited”), and employment (e.g. “…you’ve met a deadline”).
Sometimes participants were also given support in the form of prompts. For some questions, they were asked for general autobiographical information before the question (semantic prompting; e.g. “do you enjoy going to the cinema?”). For others, they received verbal prompting for the specific information required, alongside a pie chart displaying these prompts, after the question (visual-verbal prompting (V-VP); e.g. setting, people present, actions performed). Responses were graded for specificity, with each unit of information also categorized for type (episodic vs. semantic) and relevance (relevant vs. irrelevant).
Overall, the autistic group’s responses were less specific, and contained a higher proportion of irrelevant semantic information, than those of the TD group. The key finding was that V-VP was most beneficial support technique, associated with greater overall specificity, and a higher overall proportion of relevant episodic information, in both groups.
This suggests that verbal prompting may be most useful when combined with visual aids, and that this may apply to a range of interview situations. The researchers speculate that V-VP may aid the interrelated recall of information (e.g. who did what to whom, where, and when) — something autistic people can have a problem with. It may also reduce the cognitive demands of open-ended interviews, such as working out unaided exactly what — and how much — information to provide.
Semantic prompting was not as broadly helpful, but did benefit both groups, in the same ways, on the employment-based questions. The authors argue that this shows the importance of context: semantic prompting may be most useful in employment interviews, where it’s important to convey favourable personal characteristics, and give examples that show these.
The fact that the benefits of V-VP and semantic prompting were observed in both groups implies that techniques that benefit autistic people are also more generally useful. However, the finding that autistic people’s responses were less specific and semantically relevant overall suggests that — for them — any improvements may be more meaningful, enabling them in some instances to provide sufficiently detailed and relevant information where they might not otherwise have been able to do so.
The authors also consider ways in which subsequent work could extend on this study. Firstly, they suggest that groups be matched on gender (which wasn’t done here), given that gender differences have been observed in the kind of details reported in autobiographical memories. Secondly, the authors point out that autistic and TD people may have different levels of familiarity with the situations used in the questions. A survey conducted ahead of the study found that TD individuals reported more frequent engagement with the scenarios used for the criminal justice (e.g. going to the supermarket, cinema) and employment questions (e.g. working in a team, being organized) than autistic people, with the latter group reporting more experience of the healthcare-related contexts. Norris and her colleagues suggest that future work should attempt to address how these disparities may affect recall.
Overall, however, this is a well-designed study that offers a glimpse into how interviews may be made more manageable for both autistic and TD individuals. The findings suggest that these prompting techniques may — by reducing cognitive demand — help people provide more detailed and relevant information.
Post written for BPS Research Digest by Dr. Dan Carney. Dan is a UK academic psychologist 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.
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