Visual Working Memory May Provide a Clue to the Social Difficulties Seen in Autism

Poor visual working memory can play an important role in the difficulties experienced by a child with autism, according to our recent research.

The aim of this study was to compare the working memory profiles of children with autism with typically developing children. Working Memory is the ability to remember and process information and is an important skill that is linked grades from kindergarten to college.

We recruited children ages 8 to 9; some were diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, while others were typically developing. They were given standardized tests of verbal Working Memory where they had to remember letters and numbers in backwards order. They were also given visual Working Memory tests where they had to remember the location and orientation of different shapes.

The results suggest that children with autism have much worse visual working memory compared to typically developing students. This deficit can have important implications for how autistic children process their social environment - they may struggle to process visual cues on the playground, which can make it harder for them to relate to their peers.

Poor visual working memory can affect students with autism in the classroom, as well as on the playground. In the classroom, poor visual working memory can make it harder to understand math concepts, and even solve simple arithmetic. Visual working memory functions like a mental blackboard, so it is difficult for them to carry out addition and subtraction problems in their head.
Poor visual working memory can also affect social interactions. We use visual working memory to read body language and other social cues so we can respond accordingly. A student with autism may struggle with processing the nonverbal communication from their peers, which can result in the social difficulties they often experience.

This research suggests that visual working memory may play an important role in developing social skills in children with autism. Given that 1 in almost 70 children receives a diagnosis of autism, it is important to target foundational skills that to best support these children.