When autism aids memory

Adults diagnosed with relatively mild forms of autism remember word lists much better than nonautistic adults do, a new study finds. People with autism and related disorders have difficulty using context as a memory guide, but this trait may actually help them remember some types of information, propose neurologist David Q. Beversdorf of Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus and his colleagues.

The researchers presented recorded lists of words to eight adults with normal IQs and either autism or one of its less severe variants, such as Asperger syndrome. They also tested 16 adults who had no mental disorder.

After listening to a list of words and then examining a slightly different written list, adults with autism more accurately identified the words that were on both lists, the researchers report in the July 18 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If a written word (such as needle) had a related meaning to words on the just-heard list (such as thread and sewing), only the nonautistic volunteers frequently said, wrongly, that it had also been on the spoken list.

Still, the inability of people with autism to put information in context probably impairs their memory in many real-life situations, say Beversdorf and his coworkers.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.