Aspergers and memory – part 2: rote memory vs. reasoning

In yesterday’s post, I explained that while I have not been writing about Aspergers, I have been reading up on it.  While I am interested in this topic (being an Aspie myself – and living with other Aspies), I am not an expert in this field in any way whatsoever.  What I write are personal observations and should not be taken as anything other than that.

So, in Aspergers and memory – part 1: ‘sequencing’, I described that some ‘memory’ studies found that Aspies had difficulty recalling the order in which words were placed on a list they were given to read/memorize, which lead me to wonder if the frequent occurrence of dyslexia and ‘hearing dyslexia’ (APD) might be related to some memory or brain proccessing bit that messes up ‘sequencing’. 

Other studies I looked at would also have a list of words (10, 20, or more) to read/memorize in a short period of time, then the person would be presented with a whole page of words. The goal was to identify the words from the original list – Aspie results were compared to those of their ‘neurotypical’ peers.  The Aspies also did not do as well on this test as others did.  Yet, there was something that more than one researcher found quite intriguing:  for every ‘list’ word the Aspie missed, he or she was very likely to identify another word with similar meaning!  As in, they replaced some ‘list’ words with their synonyms…

Now, that opens a whole new way of looking at things!

I even read one very interesting study (only one, but I am looking for more) which concluded that Aspies of similar IQ as their peers were much, much worse at ‘rote memory’, but much, much better than their peers at remembering things they had reasoned out. 

This study found that ‘rote learning’ was absolute torture for Aspies, and they, frankly, sucked at it.  Not that they were incapable of it – they could improve it with practice.  Yet, it was not one of those things that came easily to Aspies.   Most Aspies had better recall of things which were ‘explained’ to them, rather than simply memorized.  They slightly outscored their peers, while other Aspies were just as dismal at this as they were at rote learning.  Where all Aspies excelled far above their peers was in remembering things they had reasoned out for themselves. 

Consider the implications of this:  some Aspies will be dismal in ‘rote learning’ or even ‘comprehensive learning’ (not proper term, I mean things they were taught through ‘comprehension’), but they are extremely good at remembering things they had figured out on their own!

And I must admit, this makes sooooo much sense to me!!!

The things I remember best from school are the ones where the teacher would introduce the topic, set up what he was going to use to explain it, and – before he would even say the first sentence – I would ‘see’ the pattern and understand exactly what he was about to explain.  As in, if I reasoned it out by myself – I still remember it without any ‘time degradation’, while if I understood the teacher’s explanation, the whole things gets ‘fuzzy’ with time and I have to strain to remember it, even if at one time I understood it and knew it perfectly.

Please, consider what is seen as one ‘typical’ Aspie trait:  they acquire ‘ecyclopedic’ knowledge about some obscure subject which they become absorbed in.  Could this be related?  Perhaps not ‘an explanation’, but could this be another manifestation of the same, or very related, phenomena?  After all, their ‘encyclopedic knowledge’ is to a large degree ‘self-taught’….

What are the implications of this?

First, I think it means we have to approach teaching Aspie kids very differently.  Take spelling, for example.  Instead of teaching Aspie kids simply the sound of the letters, what letters make up the word, and so on….what if we started teaching them from a broader linguistic background?  It is what I did with my kids – and it really worked…but I did it because to me, it seemed ‘the only’ way to approach it….  It would go something like this:

“See this word?  Well, look here – this is the Latin word for …”

“Hey, they have a bunch of similar letters in them!”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Ah, this bit of the meaning is the same!  They just took a Latin word bit and stuck it to …!”

Spelling that word would never be a problem in the future!  (There would still remain the often difficult task to actually motivate and Aspie kid to look at the words in the first place…but that is a whole different topic!)

Mind you, I took this approach to teaching grammar to my older son, too.  Our school system is operating on the ‘whole language’ method, where kids are expected to ‘absorb’ the language from their surroundings.  This simply is torture for Aspies, who like very specific rules they can apply – especially with English, where the linguistic ‘rules’ of a sentence are extremely well masked!

So, I turned to Latin – no we did not memorize the vocabulary, but the words in Latin are ‘flexed’ very specifically based on the role they play in a sentence.  It is therefore easy to see the patterns of how sentences are constructed.  Just showing the rules to my older son and letting him figure out for himself how to then build a sentence with latin words ‘flexed’ properly had an incredibly positive impact on his ability to write in English. 

Perhaps this is only one example, and perhaps this may not work with other Aspies, because there are soooo many individual differences between us.  Yet, I would be curious to know if others’ experiences and observations are similar to mine…so, please, let me know!