Aspergers and learning: understand, not memorize

We, Aspies, each have our own, individual way of learning.  However, in my online searches of how the Aspie brain differs from others, I have come across a few things that might be helpful when designing a learning strategy for an Aspie.

These things create an environment that helps Aspies learn:

  • CLEAR GOAL – having a plan worked out (especially with the Aspie’s help) with very clear, specific goals to be achieved in each learning session and in the overall plan clearly posted or otherwise available for the Aspie to see.
  • CLEAR EXPECTATIONS before a learning session is started, the Aspie knows what will be the task, what goal will be achieved and how it will be achieved.  This is very important to Aspies – no surprises, changes in routine, and so on – even if other people cannot understand why.
  • CLEAR PROGRESS –  clearly indicating progress within each session, as well as the progress each session makes towards the overall goal is very, very comforting and motivating for us, Aspies.
  • CONSISTENT ENVIRONMENT – it may be corny, but having a ‘special place’ with ‘special tools’ used only for learning – even if it is just a simple tray with the ‘special tools’ that gets brought out for the study session and put onto the dining room table or coffee table, etc. – can be comforting and help an Aspie get into the ‘right frame of mind’ for learning.  It is the ‘little ritual’ of ‘getting down to studying’ which helps the Aspie mind ‘settle’.
  • ENGAGEMENT -whatever motivator is used, the Aspie must want to succeed – or the whole exercise is pointless.

Yet, no learning environment will be effective if the method of learning is one that the Aspie cannot master.

Many 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.  We are even worse at remembering things ‘in order’.  (As in, if a person is shown a list of words, objects or numbers and is then requested to repeat or identify them in the same order as originally presented – Aspies rate so low, it is unbelievable.)

(Aside:  this does not mean that an Aspie cannot benefit from improving their rote memory – to the contrary!  But, that will have to be a separate post of its own…  What it does mean is that forcing an Aspie to rely on memory for learning is setting him/her up for failure, with all the emotional baggage this carries.)

Therefore, any system of learning which will rely on memorizing or sequencing or any such thing is setting an Aspie up for failure.  Be it multiplication tables or spelling/reading/writing or vocabulary or history dates – using this approach will only lead the Aspie to conclude that they are stupid and that there is no point in trying….and the Aspie will work hard to avoid these tasks, or simply refuse to perform them altogether.  This is because the internal pain of having it reinforced that ‘they are incompetent’, ‘not performing up to expectations’ and so on is so great, no amount of punishment would be worse for the Aspie.  The Aspie will either appear unwilling or unable…

This can be frustrating!  For everyone involved. 

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel!

These same studies show that Aspies are much better than their peers at remembering things they ‘figure out on their own’.  This is very, very important – and supports the whole ‘Aspies like rules’ thing!

This is just my little hypothesis, no more than that.  Yet, I think the facts fit…  One major ‘coping mechanism’ Aspies develop to compensate for poor ‘reteniton’ using ‘memory’ is to use ‘understanding’ instead. 

And what a coping mechanism!  By understanding, instead of remembering, Aspies do not learn about a subject, they learn the subject!

Aspies like rules because when we analyze something, breaking it down into small components ‘according to rules’ helps us ‘figure it out’.  That is when ‘understanding’ (or ‘comprehension’) happens.  It has certainly been my personal experience:  I went to study Physics, because it was the only subject where I did not have to remember anything!  I could (and usually did) derive each and every equation I needed from first principles – which I understood, and therefore did not have to remember.

Many Aspies (especially male Aspies) are attracted to the science and technology fields, because this is one area of learning where ‘understanding’ is much more important to success than ‘memorizing’.  Here, the ‘coping mechanism’ gives Aspies an edge over others!

Everyone is familiar with the description of the ‘young Aspie’ as ‘a little professor’, where large amounts of information are absorbed and retained.  How can this be achieved without a good memory?  

As the Aspie learns new information, it is ‘figured out’ – what each bit means, how it fits into this ‘field’ or ‘subject-matter’.  It is not so much ‘memorized’ as it is ‘absorbed into the framework of understanding’ of that subject matter.  So, it is not ‘memory’ but ‘understanding’ that the Aspie uses to learn so much about so little!

Test it for yourself.  If an Aspie were to be simply ‘memorizing’ new information about a favorite subject, they will only be able to answer the questions that are directly answered by quotes from the new information.  Yet, I am willing to bet that if you do try this little experiment, the Aspie will have – after a single read – integrated all that is contained in the new information into everything else they know about the subject. Their young mind will have cross-referenced, catalogued and analyzed all the new information as it is being read.  The answers they’ll give will be at a much deeper level of understanding than simple memorization would permit.  (Aside:  this also explains why Aspies often have a difficulty citing their source for specific facts – all the information is ‘fused’ into the common ‘understanding’ as it is absorbed and not really ‘stored’ separately.)

This suggests that ‘figuring out’/’understanding’/’comprehension’ are essential to a successful learning strategy of an Aspie.

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8 Responses to “Aspergers and learning: understand, not memorize”

  1. kinderblogger Says:

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. ellen Says:

    Alright, this article is DEAD ON!!! I can’t agree more. I’m 37, became a Flash/Flex programmer 6 years ago, after a series of failure in life, personally and professionally ( mainly because of the lack of interpersonal relationship skill and also the requirement of rote memory skill which I’m extremely weak at.

  3. Yanuel Says:

    Omg, this describes me so perfectly. Are you sure you’re not an expert. I keep reading stuff that suggests that Aspies have incredible rote memory which constantly made me doubt that I had Aspergers. If this information you have provided is factual(you keep saying you are not an expert) than now I’m even more sure of my condition. Unfortunately for me, I only just recently(last year, I’m 23) discovered that the only way I can learn is through discovering things for myself rather than memorizing information.

    Xanthippa says:

    I am NOT ‘an expert’.

    However, I am convinced that when it comes to Aspergers, the ‘experts’ have about as much of a clue about what is going on with us as a hamster has about the social structure of a dog pack….they might get a few glimpses from their cage, but their observations are incomplete and their analysis method starts from inappropriate presumptions, so their conclusions are, for the greater part, not particularly useful to anyone other than hamsters….

    I have held long conversations with several ‘experts’ in the field of Aspergers. They say Aspies do not understand neurotypicals’ body language. Well, these ‘experts’ appear to be quite equally unable to read the body language of Aspies: often, they seem oblivious that there even IS an Aspie-specific body language.

    The same goes for emotions and reasoning….

  4. marie Says:

    Okay, So I´m not officially diagnosed, but I´just started college this year and was finally able to see a psychologist, and I started telling all these problems that I´ve been having all my life that no one apparently noticed (??) and she told me to read up on Asperger’s, and the more I keep reading, the more it describes my life perfectly. Especially this part!!!!!! Like, this is exactly how my brain works. I’ve never met anyone who’s understood. It took me literally all my life to memorize the stinkin times tables yet reading my history book was so easy and I remembered the information so well because it wasn’t just facts. I was good at english classes because there was no memorization- just understanding the novels we read. This makes me so happy, you don’t understand

    Xan says:

    I think I might! (Understand, that is…)

    I was never diagnosed growing up or while in University/College…only when our older son was being assessed, the psychologist did an evaluation of ‘the family’ and diagnosed both me and my husband as Aspies as well.

    (Funny thing – both my kids went to the same MD who specializes in Aspergers. During one appointment, he looked very uncomfortable and with much uhmmm-ing and hawwww-ing, he said he hoped he was not overstepping the line when he said that, in his opinion, I had Aspergers as well…he was much relieved that I had been diagnosed earlier and did not take offense at this…which is silly: being an Aspie is a dominant genetic trait – for better or worse, we are the next evolution of humankind!)

    Now that I know it is Aspergers – and that I am not alone – I derive great comfort from this knowledge. Comments like yours validate my life-experience and each one makes me happy to have shared my experiences in order to validate someone else’s life-experience!!!

    Actually, so do my kids…

    Once, I got a phone call from my younger son’s teacher (a while ago) asking me to speak to him….apparently, some kids had attempted to bully him during recess – and he retalliated by taunting them that HE was an ASPIE and THEY WEREN’T! The school was not sure how to handle this…so they begged me to get him to stop making other kids feel inadequate for not having been diagnosed with Aspergers!!!

  5. Mike Says:

    This lost me in so many ways 0.0″

    I think I grasp the concept… I understand… kind of, what you mean. I have no idea if this integrates in my life. Maybe. That’s very interesting. I’m not sure how to test this on myself though….

    what should I do? i’m very interested about this, but I have no idea what to do.

    Xanthippa says:

    Think back to your drawing comment: you are having trouble translating ‘line of action’ and so on because you have not understood how that concept works. You have been trying to memorize how to do this, but it does not work for you.

    When you find a different way to approach this – perhaps one that seems ‘upside-down’ to neurotypicals – when you can, as you say’ wrap your brain around it, you will be able to apply it in future situations without much difficulty.

    Another example, from my life: multiplication.

    When I was in school, we were supposed to memorize multiplication tables and had to recite them. I could only memorize a couple of results – the ones that I could construcy a rhyme for. But that was like 4 or 5 out of 100+ calculations.

    Then I figured out how to break the numbers down to make multiplication simpler, using a combination of multiplication and addition. Once I did that, I could say the multiplication tables just as quickly as the other kids, but instead of having to remember it, I just did the calculations faster than the rate of reciting…

    OK, not much advantage – just breaking even, right?

    Except when it came to more complicated multiplication, using bigger numbers than the multiplication tables: now, I had a major advantage over my peers. And, even in my professional (non-math, non-school) life, I got raepect when, a few times, I did multiplication in my head faster than my peers could enter the numbers into a calculator…

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I remebered reading something somewhere about rote memory and aspergers, but I couldn’t remember if it was possitive or negative. ironic, right?
    Well, I’m glad I found this, because it sounds about right for me. I have aspergers and back when everyone else was memorize the multiplications table, I was busy finding paterns in the multiple so I could more quickly multiply up to, and far beyond, the limit of any number multiplied by twelve. it’s funny, really, I could never recite the table from memory, but if I was asked to, I could do long multiplication faster then anyone else.
    It’s nice to get an idea as to why I was like that.

  7. Ana Mert Says:

    Good point!

    It reminds me how I tried to explain my high school Physics teacher why his method of teaching and testing our knowledge is pointless. I was always getting a C on his tests although most of my class was getting B or even As because all he was asking about were definitions, repeated word by word from our textbook. I couldn’t see what’s the point in learning them this way so I was stubornly answering using my own words, the way I understood the definition.
    The teacher also never gave nor explained any practical examples to us. His lessons were all about theory. It was really different from my middle school Physics classes where my teacher was all about practice and where I was having a straight A. I was used to having good grades in this subject so I couldn’t deal with having constant Cs!

    After one of the tests I got really frustrated and started arguing him. I went up to the schoolboard and drew a lot of dots there, saying each dot is a piece of information. Then I drew lines connecting a dot to neighbor dots and said that’s what happens when information is understood – it gets connected to surrounding pieces of informations. And after that I drew a circle around the connected dots, saying that once you understand enough information you are able to figure out unknown pieces of information in the field by yourself. And I drew another circle, partly covering the previous one and said that after figuring out enough information from one field you can discover a part of related field and figure it out too.

    During next test he suddenly gave us a few practical questions together with the usual definition ones. I got a B. And it was the highest score in my class. There was a lot of Ds instead and a few people even failed although there was no fails on any of his exams before that. I can still remember how much people were complaining about the sudden difficulty raise. Especially since he never shown us any practical example during his lessons! First time we ever seen one was this exam so I could understand why they were so angry. I could only do the practical examples because I could figure them out.

    After that exam teacher started focusing on practical examples more and all further exams always contained a few of them. I was the only one in the classroom who happy…

    BTW. I am 27 and I still don’t know whole multiplication table. I learned it only from x1 to x5 plus x10 and I counted everything else using a method discovered by myself.

    • xanthippa Says:

      This is so awesome!

      I am 48 and still have to figure out he answers to multiplication tables in my head – I do NOT have them memorized.

      And, in one of my Physics class labs where we were firing bb’s in a sphere-bounded plane to derive some equation or another, I presented what, to me, seemed a clear and simple geometrical proof. Yet, my Physics teacher told me that in 40 years of teaching Physics, he had never seen this particular proof…

      In other words: You go!!!


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