Memory And Autism: emotion and the senses

Retrieving Memories

What’s your earliest memory? Someone I know claims she can remember being in a pram pushed by her mother, but in the earliest memory I have I am three.

I’m at the wedding of a distant relative in an unfamiliar town. I’m not used to social gatherings and I am under the table, trying to make myself invisible. My younger brother is in a Moses basket on the floor next to me and I’m playing with the fringes of his pastel-check blanket. It smells of milk.  I’m winding the woollen tassels round and round my fingers. It is dark under the table and the sounds from the hall are muffled. There are lots of uncles and aunts and cousins I don’t know and whose voices I can’t understand.

I sometimes wonder why this is my earliest memory.  Why did this unfamiliar event stay in my head rather than the ordinary days I was living? Is it because it was different that I remembered it?  There is no photograph of me under the table nor any photographic record of the occasion in my immediate family, so I can’t have based my memory on a visual prompt. This view I have from under the tablecloth of a bride sitting at a trestle table at the head of the room puzzles me.


I’ve no idea what Dylan’s earliest memory is.  I sometimes ponder Dylan’s dream life too, imagining that while he sleeps a jumble of real life and Disney fantasy might play in his head. I use the words ‘dream’ and ‘memory’ with Dylan sometimes, although I doubt they’re meaningful to him. Some mornings when I wake him I ask:  Did you dream Dylan? Did you see pictures in the night?  And when we’re revisiting places or I’m trying to recall a sequence for him I will prompt: Do you remember Dylan?  Do you have a memory of this?  What is in question here is not whether Dylan has dreams or memories, which he undoubtedly does.  Based on what he has shown me, I’d say Dylan’s memory goes a long way back in time.

In 1996, when Dylan was two, we visited Pont-Aven in Brittany during a family holiday. We went to the art gallery in the town and saw a Schuffenecker exhibition from which I bought  a poster. When Dylan was nine years old we visited the town again. I can be precise about timings because the two posters which record these visits have dates on them. On this later visit, Dylan led us confidently and without error back to the art gallery and searched it until he found the original Schuffenecker of our print. That day, there was a Gauguin exhibition at the gallery and, again, we bought a print. After we left the gallery, Dylan took us to a specialist biscuit shop where we had chosen a gift for his Gran seven years previously.

I’m not surprised that Dylan should remember a painting and a tin of biscuits  (both are things he loves) but I am impressed that this involved him remembering something which happened when he was two years old. Later, I was to realise that Dylan’s memories might go even further back, to babyhood.  The following poem (published in my collection Walking on Tiptoe and Other Poems) describes a moment I had to pinch myself to believe.

Clown –

The first thing I bought (waiting)
suspended from a stripy
papier maché balloon.

I hung it above his cot
and in that first year
would act a little game
as I settled him down at dusk
or greeted him in first light –
bending (not quite enough)
I’d catch clown, make him tremble,
then pull a crosspatch face:  Naughty clown!
You bumped me on the head.


At the end of that first year
my son turned silent, caught in a world
without play or make-believe.
Clearing out baby things years later
I strung it up anyway –
hung it in his nearly-teenage room
of toddler videos and Thomas the Tank.
He raised his sloppy point, gestured
at my head and (not remembering)
I looked behind me, perplexed.
Then he stood up, pushed me
into the papier maché clown –
bump bump bump on the side
of your head, mummy –
and laughed me straight in the eye.

I sat down on his bed. Naughty clown
I whispered. You bumped me on the head.
You naughty clown to make me cry –
to raise my perfect baby from the dead.

Memory and Emotion

A report in the BBC Radio 4 programme All in the Mind suggested that people who have remarkable memories may be making  emotional connections with the material (18th December 2013). Discussing the research on which the report was based, Christian Jarrett – who also  noted a high incidence of false memory among the research sample –  emphasised that  ’emotional connection’ is still only a hypothesis. Emotional  connection could explain why Dylan remembered the geography of Pont-Aven; on our return visit he was surely motivated by having previously enjoyed the gallery.

Scientists don’t really know why some people demonstrate remarkable memories, though, and aspects of this research surprise me.  I had always assumed that people who demonstrate phenomenal memories  – those who enter quiz shows or perform feats of extraordinary recall –  do so by removing  information from its social context, rather than by emphasising this.  Autism has frequently been connected with this sort of memory. It’s movies like Rainman and reports of autistic people reproducing fantastic details from memory (such as Stephen Wiltshire’s architectural drawings) which are at the root of this. I’ve met autistic individuals in my own community who demonstrate this facility: the boy who had committed the A-Z of my city to memory and could tell me which page number I lived on if I told him my postcode; the young man who had learned the car registration plates of all the regular users of the car park.

While autistic people may be reputed to be good at remembering this sort of abstract information, they have been thought to struggle with emotional intelligence and especially empathy.  This, on the face of it, might challenge a link between memory and emotion. But what if the hypothesis is right? Could the boy have learned a car park of registration numbers because of a strong emotional connection? Assuming it was a deep interest in transport that motivated him to memorise the plates, then Yes.  Equally, buildings  or roads or dates could be committed to memory if you cared enough about them.  Although the research linking memory and emotion wasn’t explicitly focused on the autistic mind, it may add weight to the suggestion increasingly being made that autistic people experience excessive emotional connection rather than any deficit.

Memory Retrieval

Let’s assume, for a moment, that remembering something involves making an emotional connection with it – and let’s also hypothesise that being autistic involves excessive emotional connectivity.  That might be quite an uncomfortable place to live: it could mean that you remember an awful lot. Actually, I am persuaded by this possibility. I have a suspicion that Dylan remembers and stores everything. My hunch, however, relates to Dylan’s ability to retain and store memories, rather than to retrieve them. My hazard is that it is the retrieval of memory which is challenging for Dylan, rather than memory itself. Dylan’s limited communication probably doesn’t help (for retrieval mechanisms are usually linguistic) but I don’t think this is the root of the issue.  A key difference between myself and Dylan seems to be that he is better at storing and retaining stuff than I am, and I am better at retrieving it (perhaps because I’ve less stuff to sort through).

Much of our education system – certainly that part of it which leads to public examination – is based on the retention and appropriate retrieval of information. One of the challenges for all learners, not just those who are autistic, is retrieving and applying information appropriately to new situations. Part of supporting students to learn therefore involves helping them to remember information and to retrieve and apply it when required. I point out to my students that mnemonics like Richard of York Gained Battles in Vain (for the colours of the rainbow) and Rhythm Has Your Two Hips Moving (for the spelling of rhythm)  are specifically designed to help children to retrieve information more easily.  Mnemonics (the etymology relates to the River of Mnemosyne, representing remembrance in the underworld)  can be remarkably effective. What mnemonics, and other retrieval methods, offer us is a way of organising abstract information (like a sequence of letters, numbers or colours) into a narrative. Narratives are easier for us to remember because they are social stories which connect with our experience of being human. Perhaps this is what is at the heart of the research I referred to earlier: not ’emotion’ exactly, but our use of social narratives, freighted with emotion, to recall information?

Memory and the Senses

But social narratives aren’t supposed to carry much weight if you’re autistic; Dylan isn’t interested in shared experience. What is it, then, that helps him to remember so deeply? Perhaps there is a clue to be found in the three year old girl under the table at that wedding. If I read through the account of my earliest memory what I notice most is the sense data: the quality of the light, the sound of the room, the feel of the wool in my fingers, the smell of my brother’s milky basket.  Sense data is incredibly powerful; it is at the heart of the greatest narrative of memory ever written, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, in which the taste of a madeleine triggers the recall of boyhood memories.

When encouraging my Life Writing in Education students to access their deep memories of schooling  I use an extract from Proust. Then, in order to engage their senses, I pass round madeleines for them to taste and  I set up a range of sensory-based activities such as walking blindfold round the classroom. These exercises are designed to help students to think themselves back into their childhood selves and reflect on their role as educational professionals emotionally not just cognitively. To unlock these  memories – in order for students to retrieve them – they need to use their senses. Perhaps rather than emotion or social narrative, it is Dylan’s heightened senses which allow him to commit so much information to his deep memory.

While developing this post I came across an article in Psychology Today by Lynne Soraya, a woman living with Asperger’s Syndrome, which focuses on early memory and autism. Soraya suggests that autistic people have strong early memories and, as I argue here in relation to Dylan, that the senses may play a role in this. There’s a link to the article here:

Thinking about memory while writing this post has helped me to imagine Dylan overloaded with a jumble of memories  laying siege to his senses and taking up processing room. But it has also made me wonder if perhaps we non-autistics manage the world because, with our duller senses, our  tendency is not to remember, but to forget.


Barrett, Elizabeth (2007) ‘Clown’ in Walking on Tiptoe and Other Poems, Bluechrome Press

9 thoughts on “Memory And Autism: emotion and the senses

    • Thank you Socks 🙂 I can’t believe that clown is still such a part of our lives – it’s now hanging in the attic den I made for Dylan last weekend…


  1. Reading this makes me wish I was one of your students, your course sounds amazingly exciting. I am sitting here trying to make up a mnemonic or picture thing to remember my new mobile phone number. I think I might have it now, James Bond, Michael plus 1, two trees by heaven”s gates covered in golden apples, baby me, and three more birch trees in the garden. Cross your fingers for me 🙂 Seriously though my memory has become stubborn, I can almost hear it arguing with me, an internal voice saying, are you sure you want me to try and remember this, I am not sure it is worth the effort and it is hard to fight against a determined inner voice sometimes. My first memory curiously is of Tim, filling an empty (and to me gigantic) swimming pool with a garden hose at someone’s home in Devon and thinking how happy he looked and how long it was going to take and, I thought and I remember it well, thinking that from now on I really should try to remember everything. I was two and a half. I didn’t and haven’t remembered everything. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that inside my head, and I think you have it right that we non-autistics have an advantage in managing the world because we forget.


    • I love your mnemonic Joanna! Gorgeous blend of the familiar and the private; those golden apples are tantalising. I love the way you always make me feel not alone with my gaps (like the face blindness thing and the oddities of memory). I am constantly making up rhymes and narratives and pictures to remember things now – and if I do it too well they stick in my head forever like the reg plate of my ex-husband’s car (‘my 22nd xylophone went bang’). Mad and magical things are memories. I used to think mine was photographic; aced all my exams because I just had these pictures in my head of the text books and could reproduce everything. I can’t do that anymore – my memory has definitely got worse with age and I miss it sometimes. Except that I really do think (as Ted Hughes once said) that forgetting is part of survival (and he would know). Your swimming pool memory is lovely – thinking that someone looked happy must be as blessed as it gets. Your memory of thinking to yourself that you must remember it reminds me of my daughter. At a very young age (maybe 2-3 like you – the logical toddlers club!) she said to me one day ‘just a moment mummy. Don’t talk. I’m just putting this in my memory’. She had a little action at the side of her head, like a switch, that she would sometimes do. As she got older I realised she had got the photographic memory I had when I was younger – and I got to see how scary it can be when someone remembers things quite clearly and you don’t! All the people I must have terrified when I was younger! No scope for that anymore I’m afraid – can’t even remember my own reg plate 🙂 But thinking of Dylan and Tim, I wonder whether living without language means you remember more because you’re paying attention – I’m never sure whether having words helps or hinders my memory. So many mysteries… Thanks for reading Joanna – lovely to hear from you.


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