Autism and Managing Multi-Tasking and Memory

People who are unfamiliar with the autism spectrum, usually associate autism and memory with savants who have extraordinary recall abilities. However, that does not represent the majority of those with autism. For my son, Chase, and others diagnosed with autism, the issues of multi-tasking and memory are complex and intertwined. The various ways in which these issues manifest themselves differs from person to person.

There are studies and articles that explore the mysteries of multi-tasking and memory in the life of individuals with autism, but there are still huge question marks which have yet to be answered. In my own search for the keys to Chase’s brain, I learned that researchers have discovered that the brains of children with autism are inflexible at rest-to-task performance. This basically means that specific brain connections do not change or function as they should, when switching from a resting-state to a task-state. There can also be impairments in the parts of the brain responsible for prospective memory (remembering things that need to be done in the future) and retrospective memory (remembering things that occurred in the past).

Then there all the variables. Some of the variables that can affect Chase’s performance are: number of tasks, and familiar tasks versus unfamiliar tasks; mixing new or non-routine tasks with regular routine tasks; whether he perceives the tasks as tightly connected to one another (as in preparing a recipe or the morning grooming routine, etc.); or if he perceives the tasks as unrelated to each other (as with a set of instructions that might include turn off the TV, take out the trash, get the mail, wipe off the kitchen counter, etc.); personal preferences, emotional states, tiredness, diet, exercise, and supplements; needing to use the restroom; external noises and internal thoughts; hormone changes (puberty); the mental and physical effort required to complete a task / tasks; as well as time factors and his perception of time.

When Chase forgets a bit of information or a task, it doesn’t necessarily disappear from his mind forever. Usually, when provided with a prompt, he can recall what he had previously forgotten. On occasion, something other than someone prompting him, like seeing an object related to a topic or task, will trigger the memory. But then there are other times when he genuinely doesn’t recall being told something.

However, an interesting twist to how Chase’s memory works is his ability to remember facts and points of interest about people, places, and other subjects all on his own, seemingly without any extra effort. And he is quick to correct someone if the person misquotes, even by one word, information he has memorized in a certain way. A good example is an exchange he had with one of his aunts. Chase said, “King Henry VIII had six wives: Two he divorced, two he had executed, one died in childbirth, and one he stayed married to until he died.” His aunt replied, “Yes, that’s correct!” And then she started to repeat what he said, but she used the word “killed” instead of “executed.” Chase immediately stopped her and said, “No, you mean executed.”

For those of you who have or know kids on the spectrum, you might be recognizing many of the things I’m describing. Managing the combination of these challenges is a delicate and tricky business.

Routine, repetition, supervision, timers, and verbal and visual reminders are all essential in helping Chase manage his multi-tasking and memory. Now that he’s older, his manager of choice is his Apple watch. There are times when he gets distracted and ignores the reminder notifications, and in those situations I hold him accountable like I would any “typical” kid. I wouldn’t be doing him or the rest of the world any favors if I let him think or behave in ways that I know are less than his best effort. Every accommodation is made for his challenges, but ignoring a reminder notification because of a video game is not acceptable, so game privileges might be taken away for a day or two.

Once people understand Chase’s challenges with multi-tasking and memory, in addition to his challenges with speech and fine motor skills, they have a much deeper appreciation for what it takes for him to do his Chase ‘N Yur Face Cooking Show, create a cookbook, and to embrace and pursue his dreams in arenas that are extremely demanding in the areas that he struggles in most. Chase enjoys encouraging people to follow their own dreams, and always says, “If I can do it, you can do it.” This isn’t just positive talk. With help, Chase faces down enormous challenges every day, all day to make his dreams come true.

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