Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Only a memory

For the past couple of days, Kristina's post about "splinter skills" on My Son Has Autism has been simmering in the back of my brain. Last night, when I posted about Paul Collins's new book, The Trouble With Tom, I quoted a passage from Collins about memory and shortly after that my mind began to boil over.

Collins wrote,
Every moment gets thrown out like so much garbage - which, in a sense, is what the past is. Memory is a toxin, and its overretention - the constant replaying of the past - is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.
So, what if I've been looking at it backwards? What if Bud's "splinter skills" - remembering volumes of video dialogue with appropriate inflection and dialect, remembering the lyrics to every song he's ever heard, remembering the track number of every song on every CD, entering a store he was in once before several years ago and knowing instantly what he played with there - what if all these things are not because of an extraordinary ability or even an obsessive compulsion to remember?

What if they are because of a diminished capacity to forget?

The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Perhaps Bud is overretaining some one-off interaction with a dog that happened so quickly I didn't even see it, but has rendered him pathologically fearful of dogs ever since. Perhaps it's the overretention of information that produces scripting echolalia; if he is unable to forget these lines, maybe obsessively reciting them is the only means he has of purging, of letting off some steam. Perhaps it's the overretention of memory that prevents him from cycling down with the rest of us at sunset, that keeps him sleepless, that wakes him early.

Doesn't it make sense that he'd be reluctant to interact with new people if he ran the risk of having to carry them all with him forever? Wouldn't it make him want to stick to the videos, the experiences, the foods, the everything he already knows he likes if he knew he wouldn't be able to sort out and discard the videos, experiences, foods, and everything that he didn't like? Wouldn't it make him want to put his hands over his ears in new situations to try to keep some of it from getting in?

Maybe this is where the computer metaphor for the autistic brain makes sense. Perhaps Bud's brain has enormous capacity for memory, but is unable to selectively delete the contents of his hard drive that he no longer needs. Maybe he needs help to defrag.

I think about the imperative messages I deliver to him all day in an effort to help him to focus, tune in, and attend to the world around him:

"Listen, Bud."

"Pay attention."

"Look at this."

Perhaps I'm overlooking the most important imperative of all:

"Forget about it."


kristina said...

Forget about it--that sums up what I wish Charlie would do after he's noted my parents ("Gong Gong Po Po") are gone back to "Californy" for the 97th plus time. Even while he does well with structure and clearly defined limits, he seems to have trouble accepting closure, good bye, it's lost, she's gone.
We have often thought that Charlie just can't forget certain "first things." In particular, the intensive Lovaas program that was his first educational experience when he was 2 years old. Of late, we are seeing that everything else has been a letdown for him---he just won't let go of those first college students who taught him at his little plastic table and who have been elevated to Archetype status in our household.

not my blg said...

Your insight is simply brilliant. I've never thought in those terms before but you are on to something.


Eileen said...

This one has really made me think. Since Andrew does not have strong verbal skills, it is not always easy to know what he is thinking, but I have always been amazed at how he remembers certain things. Like when we went to his school for the 2nd time for an evaluation months and months later and a second before we were "buzzed" in, he mimicked the sound of the buzzer. He sounded exactly like the buzzer. Or how when we went to visit an Aunt's house after almost a year later and he went directly to all his favorites in the house as soon as we go there. Obviously remembering from the time he was only two years old.

It makes perfect sense why an Autistic individual would create a verbal stim to block out all the other sounds around him now or like you said putting their hands over their ears.

Thanks for making me think.

Brett said...

Sometimes I think Zeke remembers everything, but I never really thought about that memory as a "problem." Like most flashes of brilliance, this is "obvious" once someone points it out.

What really gets me is that I've looked at this same type of problem in organizations. The ones that are most successful these days are the ones that can "read" their environment and respond / adapt. Those old, full of memory big guys have so much history that they just can't seem to overcome it.

Thanks for a great insight and something to think about. And I'm definitely going to add The Trouble with Tom to my reading list.

29 Marbles
...no straight lines...

Pat Fitzgerald said...

What an interesting way of looking at it. Generalizing would be a lot harder if you remembered every detail of how each situation is different.

Jenn said...

Great blog - I never looked at it like that before. I was always secretly proud of my boys ability to remember everything, down to the most minute detail, yet frustrated that they couldn't seem to remember that I told them NOT to play with the phones, or my computer or with kitchen knives.......(sigh).
The endless repetition of Shrek verbatim that goes on in this house is enough to drive anyone batty I think.
We are still in assessment phase for my 3 and 4 yr old boys. It's almost reassuring to hear that my kids are not alone in their eccentricities, and abilities.
I'll be back to read more!

supermom_in_ny said...

OMG!!!!! That has got to be it. I am a shopoholic. My Little One accompanies me all the time. He knows where every crayola aisle is, in every store I go to...even when he has only been there once!! He knows all the possible routes to get to the bus his Dad takes home from NYC. He knows all the routes to his school. He knows where all the McDonald's, Burger King's and Wendy's are in all the towns we have visited. That is the perfect explanation. Can I add a link to this post? I would like other parents of autistic children to read it.
I want to know what others have to share about this theory...

Wade Rankin said...

Wow! What an epiphany. All I can really do is echo everyone else's comments. I wonder if we can teach our kids to forget?

Moi ;) said...

Interesting insight. I am not sure that it's that complex. Bug remembers things from years ago, but I don't think it's that it's overretention, really. He remembers what he associates with pleasant (or unpleasant) experiences. Everything else is not worth retaining.

The mind only holds something in short term memory for 6 hours at most. To get something into long-term memory, you have to repeat it several times a day, for several days in a row. Is it any wonder our kids can recite entire videos? LOL

Bug used to be deathly afraid of dogs, too, and I could never figure out why. I thought the same thing - I didn't know anyone who HAD a dog. So I couldn't figure out why he was so scared. Maybe there was a mean dog in a video? 101 Dalmatians had some mean ones.

But maybe the dog has something more to do with sensorily. The barking maybe? Or they don't like the smell, or feel of certain textured fur...my son used to get asthma attacks around certain kinds. We no longer have dog issues, especially not now that he has his own.

Anonymous said...

it is an interesting way of looking at it but what makes more sense to me is looking at it in terms of autism being an 'information processing disorder',that it is the WAY that information is encoding and processed or not processed or incorporated or not incorporated that is the issue.

NT people can take in enormous amounts of information in one fell swoop, Dr. G. of RDI likens it to a broadband computer connections, while the person with ASD takes in each bit of information individually, perhaps coming in on hundreds of different wires. he thinks these kids cannot easily filter out what is important so that, for example, the sound of leaves fluttering in the background may get equal weight to the words being spoken by the person a few inches from their face. it's information overload. maybe these our kids hang onto the things that make the greatest impression? or maybe these pockets of information stay just like that, pockets, and dont' get integrated into a whole, into a meaning, and so certain things stand out starkly, and are returned to over and over. ??