Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

The Pattern of Intact and Impaired Memory Functions in Autism

Nancy J.  Minshew  a1 c1 and Gerald  Goldstein  a1
a1 University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, U.S.A.
a2 VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, U.S.A.


A battery of tests of auditory and visual memory was used to investigate memory function in 52 high-functioning adolescents and young adults with autism and 40 group-matched normal controls. It was hypothesized that memory dysfunction is present in autism but is not modality specific and is produced by poor utilization of organizing strategies. It was therefore hypothesized that memory impairment in autism would become more prominent as task complexity was increased. The participants with autism performed as well as controls on short-term memory and paired-associate learning tasks, but performed significantly less well than controls on a list learning task. They also performed significantly more poorly on immediate and delayed recall of a story and of a complex geometric figure. On a maze learning task, their performance became progressively worse relative to controls as the complexity of the maze increased. On a series of span tasks, they did not differ from controls on letter span, but did significantly worse on word span and sentences of increasing complexity. These findings indicate a lack of modality specificity and a failure to initiate organizing strategies as evidenced by inefficiency in new learning, poor utilization of contextual cues in story and complex pattern recall, and greater impairment with increasing complexity of the material.

(Accepted January 24 2001)

Key Words: Autistic Disorder; memory; learning; abstract reasoning; concept formation; information processing.

c1 Requests for reprints to: Nancy J. Minshew, Department of Psychiatry, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, 3811 O’Hara Street, Suite 430 Bellefield Towers Bldg., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, U.S.A. (E-mail: