Executive functions are employed to process episodic and relational memories in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Maister, L., Simons, J.S., & Plaisted-Grant, K. (2013). Neuropsychology, 27, 615-627.

Objective: Long-term memory functioning in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) is marked by a characteristic pattern of impairments and strengths. Individuals with ASD show impairment in memory tasks that require the processing of relational and contextual information, but spared performance on tasks requiring more item-based, acontextual processing. Two experiments investigated the cognitive mechanisms underlying this memory profile. Method: A sample of 14 children with a diagnosis of high-functioning ASD (age: M = 12.2 years), and a matched control group of 14 typically developing (TD) children (age: M = 12.1 years), participated in a range of behavioral memory tasks in which we measured both relational and item-based memory abilities. They also completed a battery of executive function measures. Results: The ASD group showed specific deficits in relational memory, but spared or superior performance in item-based memory, across all tasks. Importantly, for ASD children, executive ability was significantly correlated with relational memory but not with item-based memory. No such relationship was present in the control group. This suggests that children with ASD atypically employed effortful, executive strategies to retrieve relational (but not item-specific) information, whereas TD children appeared to use more automatic processes. Conclusions: The relational memory impairment in ASD may result from a specific impairment in automatic associative retrieval processes with an increased reliance on effortful and strategic retrieval processes. Our findings allow specific neural predictions to be made regarding the interactive functioning of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and posterior parietal cortex in ASD as a neural network supporting relational memory processing.