Several researchers have hypothesized a deficit in memory processing to exist in children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This hypothesis has been supported by findings of deficient recall and recognition ability in children with ASD. Specifically, research has pointed to greater deficits in their ability to recall events related to the self as opposed to others. However, such research has not explored how memory functioning would be impacted when an event with an emotional tenor was used and when a forced choice yes/no paradigm was used to extricate what was remembered from the event. The current study aimed to compare recognition memory for personally experienced and witnessed events using a mock stranger-danger scenario. Forty-two children with ASD underwent either a personally experienced or witnessed event. Following the event, the child was administered a survey assessing their recognition of both thematic and detailed content from the event. No statistically significant differences were identified for recognition memory between the personally experienced and witnessed events. While differences between the groups were not found to be significant, it was revealed that there was a trend towards significance for better recognition of details for the witnessed than for the personally experienced event. Implications for future research are discussed as well as the potential impact of such findings in the terms of forensic and educational domains.

Key Take Away Points

  • Children with autism experience various impairments in memory functioning that make them vulnerable to being misperceived by both law enforcement and the public.
  • Findings from the current investigation suggest that children with autism recognize fewer details from personally experienced events than from witnessed events. Thus, they may be poor advocates for themselves if required to testify or in investigative contexts.
  • Such findings, in addition to prior research in this area, underscore the need to develop cognitive curricula that aid in the development of personal episodic memory in this population.

Author Biography

Kelly A. Cornett obtained her B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and her Psy.D. in Clinical and Forensic Psychology from Alliant International University. She worked for six years as a Clinical Supervisor at a social skills and behavioral service agency serving individuals with developmental disabilities. She completed her predoctoral internship in neuropsychology and rehabilitation psychology at the U.C. Davis Medical Center and is currently completing postdoctoral fellowship training in neuropsychology at the Hope Network.

Deborah S. Miora, an Associate Professor at the California School of Forensic Studies, received her BA from Ithaca College with majors in Sociology and Psychology, and her MA and Ph.D. degrees from the California School of Professional Psychology where she taught coursework in psychopathology and psychodynamic interventions. She had forensic and clinical internships, undertook two years of post-doctoral training in neuropsychology with an emphasis in pediatric and forensic evaluation. She consults and researches in the areas of juvenile and criminal justice and neuropsychological functioning. She performs juvenile justice evaluations in the areas of competency and fitness as well as neurocognitive assessments in capital cases, and maintains a clinical practice emphasizing identity development within the individual and in relation to the external world.

Tracy Fass completed her B.A. in Psychology at Binghamton University, her J.D. at Villanova University School of Law, and her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Drexel University. She completed postdoctoral fellowship training in psychosocial rehabilitation and correctional psychology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and Century Regional Detention Facility. She is currently an Associate Professor and Interim Program Director at the California School of Forensic Studies (CSFS). Her research focuses on juvenile delinquency, sentencing policy, and risk-assessment. She currently serves as a member of the American Psychology-Law Society (APA Division 41) Mentorship and Social Networking Committees.

Dennis Dixon completed his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University. He currently works as a part of the research team at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.