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!

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6 Responses to “Aspergers and memory – part 2: rote memory vs. reasoning”

  1. Aspergers and learning: understand, not memorize « Xanthippa’s Chamberpot Says:

    […] of the studies I have read have found that Aspies have very poor memory – as in, rote memory.  We are much, much worse at it than our peers of comparable intelligence.  […]

  2. Timberland Stiefel Damen Says:

    Amazing posting! You know much about the topic. I recollect going through conversations about this while I was in school. Even though they were being stressful oftentimes, they had the help of staying regularly contained in just a kind of guarded region. The exact framework of this discussion is more or less decided-on from the actual (demo graphically really generally) teacher in addition to pupils. Anyways…to come back upon issue…. I wrote a blog entry on this subject on my blog =) I fundamentally summarized this post, and send my visitors to your entry. Thanks a lot for your points – more please!

    Xanthippa says: Thank you!

  3. John Demick Says:

    “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.”

    Hello Xanthippa, great artiicle. This quote above spoke to me because it is something I can relate to. I to have noticed that in college I had a much better grasp on material I have reasoned for myself, or was simply interested in. Do you have a link to this study?

    Xanthippa says:
    Unfortunately, I wrote this post several years and two computers ago.

    Back then, I did not insert as many links as I do now – live and learn. But, I did have the link bookmarked…in the laptop that died of Oceanspray RubyTangerine in the keyboard. So, no, I no longer have the link – my apologies.

  4. Jill Says:

    I find this very interesting! I am not Aspie, but I learn similarly to what you describe. My son is “borderline” on all of the Asperger’s scales, but I think that he learns very similarly to this, as well. I’m curious what you do to teach math facts. He *knows* his math facts, but it takes him forever to recall them. I *can* reason them out, and I’ve mostly let him, thus far, with the thought that it’ll sink in as he has more experience using them. But his speed is starting to interfere with his progress (5th-6th grade level) because he spends so much time on calculating that he loses sight of the process. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

    Xanthippa says:
    I fear there is no easy answer – for much of my grade-school, I too was a ‘slow calculator’. But, what helped me is doing math visually, writing things out (I am a very visual person) and doing ‘long addition’ on even simple things.

    There may be some help in puzzles: as we use a neural pathway over and over, it ‘deepens’ and it easier to be followed next time. So, puzzles like Kakuro, which require repetitive addition but are very fun, may be a way to help build those neural paths!

  5. Suzanne Kuchynka Says:

    I’m a person who doesn’t get things unless I get them deeply. I’m visual and an exceptional organizer. I also love to learn, one of my greatest strengths. One of the most helpful things I’ve acquired are such things as study and organizational skills. Like, how to brain storm with mind mapping. Or how to highlight important elements in a book for a quick review before tests. I’m always gathering ideas and uses to better my processes. I use lots of notebooks, dividers and files to capture ideas and organize them in such a way that as to have quick recall, since I cannot retain things by mere memory. Onenote also, is a wonderful program to gather and organize information.

    With a highly organized routine, I can easily find and review the things I learn as I think through them, resulting in a deep understanding of my subject.


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