Supporting autistic adults’ episodic memory recall in interviews: The role of executive functions, theory of mind, and language abilities

Jade Norris, Katie Maras

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Abstract

Autistic people have difficulties recalling episodic memories, including retrieving fewer or less specific and detailed memories compared to typically developing people. However, the ability to effectively recall episodic memories is crucial in many real-world contexts, such as the criminal justice system, medical consultations, and employment interviews. Autistic people’s episodic memory difficulties are most apparent when open, unsupportive questions are used. The ‘Task Support Hypothesis’ posits that autistic people can recall as much information as typically developing people with more supportive questioning. Alongside problems retrieving episodic memories, autistic people also experience difficulties with executive functioning, theory of mind, and expressive language. The current study aimed to assess the impact of these abilities on recall in two previous studies by the authors that compared autistic and typically developing adults on recall specificity in police, healthcare, and employment interviews, and recall quality in employment interviews under unsupported and supported questioning. Under unsupported questioning only, autistic adults’ episodic autobiographical memory recall specificity was predicted by expressive language, whereas for the typically developing group, only theory of mind was a significant predictor. No other predictors were significant across the study. Implications for the task support hypothesis are discussed. Lay abstract: Autistic people have difficulties recalling episodic memories (memories of specific events) compared to typically developing people. However, being able to effectively recall such memories is important in many real-world situations, for example, in police interviews, during medical consultations, and in employment interviews. Autistic people’s episodic memory difficulties are most noticeable when they are responding to open, unsupportive questions. However, the ‘Task Support Hypothesis’ indicates that autistic people are able to recall as much information as typically developing people, as long as they are asked more supportive questions. Autistic people also experience difficulties with executive functioning (cognitive abilities which allow us to plan, hold information in mind, inhibit interruptions, etc.), theory of mind (the ability to understand others’ perspectives and intentions), and spoken language. The current study aimed to investigate the impact of these cognitive abilities on memory recall in two previous studies which compared autistic and typically developing adults on how specific their recall was in police, healthcare, and employment interviews, and the quality of responses during an employment interview when both unsupportive and supportive questioning was used. The results show that while typically developing people may rely on theory of mind abilities, autistic people may rely more on language abilities when performing in interviews, potentially to compensate for their episodic memory difficulties, and that this effect is most apparent during more unsupportive recall (e.g. when a brief, open question is asked) compared to when open questions are followed by prompts (e.g. ‘tell me about who as there’, ‘what happened?’, etc.).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-524
JournalAutism
Volume26
Issue number2
Early online date9 Jul 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2022

Keywords

  • autism spectrum disorders
  • autobiographical memory
  • cognition (attention
  • communication and language
  • episodic memory
  • executive functions
  • expressive language
  • interviews
  • learning
  • memory)
  • task support hypothesis
  • theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology

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