Multi-Tasking & Memory:
Exercises in Patience, Perseverance, and Seeing the Bigger Picture
For Chase, and many others diagnosed with autism, the issues of multi-tasking and memory are complex and intertwined. The various ways in which these issues manifest themselves differs from person to person. Several months ago, I did a post entitled, Chase’s Cooking Show: Educational/ Curriculum Component. In that post, I outline in detail all of the ways in which doing these shows strengthen and challenge Chase, mentally and physically. If you haven’t read that post yet, or it’s been awhile since you have, I urge you to read it to further acquaint yourself with and appreciate what a personal triumph this is for Chase, given the challenges of his diagnosis – which includes how the irregularities in his brain affect his multi-tasking and memory.
There are numerous studies and articles that attempt to solve the mysteries of what, when, how, and why of multi-tasking and memory in the life of individuals with autism. Even though there are still huge question marks in the research that have yet to be answered, it’s interesting and informative material, and can be very helpful when learning how to interact and assist those with autism. I’m not a certified professional or a doctor, but as I’ve shared before, I’m a parent earning a PHD in the welfare of my own child. Therefore, I’m centered on my observations and experiences with Chase.
In my own investigations into the mysteries of Chase’s brain, I discovered that researchers have established that the brains of children with autism are inflexible at “rest-to-task performance”. This basically means that specific brain connections do not change much or function as they should, when switching from a resting-state to a task-state. I’ve also learned that in those with autism, there are impairments in the parts of the brain responsible for prospective memory and retrospective memory. Prospective memory is remembering things that need to be done in the future. Retrospective memory is remembering things that occurred in the past. Managing the combination of these challenges is delicate and tricky business.
Then there all the variables. The variables affecting Chase’s performance are the same variables that affect those of us not on the spectrum, and disrupt our own performances from time to time. The difference is, the rest of us can snap-out-of-it and carry on normally at some point; whereas those with autism have the brain irregularities that don’t allow them to simply snap-out-of-it. Some of the variables that can affect Chase’s performance are: number of tasks, preferences, emotional states (excitement, stress, anxiety, etc.); familiar tasks versus unfamiliar tasks; mixing new or non-routine tasks with regular routine tasks; whether he perceives the tasks as tightly connected to one another (as in preparing a recipe or the morning grooming routine, etc.); or if he perceives the tasks as unrelated to each other (as with a set of instructions that might include turn off the TV, take out the trash, get the mail, wipe off the kitchen counter); needing to use the restroom; external noises and internal thoughts; tiredness, diet, exercise, supplements, hormone changes (puberty); and the mental and physical effort required to complete a task / tasks.
Time is also a governing factor for Chase. The time factor takes 2 forms. The first, is the time that it takes him to process the instructions, which varies depending on the circumstances. The second, is his perception of time. Telling him to do something now, in a few minutes, in 5 minutes with the use of a timer, or 5 minutes without the use of a timer will result in 4 different sets of perceptions and responses from Chase. Which brings me to the next point. Instructions need to be as specific and simple as possible. Vagueness or extraneous information leads to confusion and frustration on both sides.
Doing preferred tasks or intending to do a task, is no guarantee that he will be able to remember or perform multiple tasks. Also, forgotten information or a task doesn’t necessarily disappear from his mind forever. Usually, when provided with a prompt or reminded that he needs to do a task, he remembers the information, or the task he was asked to do. But then there are other times when he genuinely doesn’t recall being told something. On occasion, something other than someone else reminding him what he forgot, like seeing an object related to a topic or task, will trigger the memory.
If he remembers to do something after he was meant to do it and he is in the middle of another task, then that can cause conflict for him. (“Do I stop and do it now, or finish what I’m doing? Do I still need to do the previously forgotten task since the time to do it has passed?”) He might decide to suddenly stop what he is doing in order to do the forgotten task, and then he might forget to return to what he was doing before he stopped to do the forgotten task.
Yet here’s an interesting twist to how Chase’s memory works. I am continuously amazed at the facts and points of interest that he remembers about people, places, and various things all on his own, seemingly without any extra effort - like where a person was born, what that person does for a living, relatives, when that person died, etc. He loves Wikipedia, and doing online research for topics of interest. He is quick to correct someone if the person misquotes information he has memorized in a certain way, by even one word. If he tells you, “King Henry VIII had 6 wives. 2 he divorced, 2 he had executed, 1 died in childbirth, and 1 he stayed married to until he died”; and then you respond by repeating what he said, but change the word “executed” to “killed”, he will stop you and say, “No, you mean ‘executed’.”
Are you still with me? For those of you who have or know kids on the spectrum, you might be recognizing many of the things I’m describing.
So what’s the answer to handling these circumstances? Routine, repetition (practice, practice, and more practice), supervision, timers, verbal and visual reminders, are all essential in helping Chase manage his multi-tasking and memory deficits. Once something has found a way to cement itself in his brain, it stays with him though. This leads me to believe that there is a way for his brain to build and strengthen those connections; or to somehow bypass the irregularities and create a pathway and a space for the required brain activity. Exactly how this happens and how long it takes for it to happen, is yet another question mark.
Let me be real here – there are moments when this business of decoding mysteries, calculating variables, and framing realistic expectations is exhausting and frustrating. As Chase’s Mom, I’m always trying to distinguish between when I must make allowances for his circumstances, and when I need to lean hard on him like I would any other “typical” kid - I wouldn’t be doing him or the rest of the world any favors if I let him think or behave in ways that I know are less than his best effort. Like all concerned parents, I occasionally miss the mark in one direction or the other. But in those moments, we must take a deep breath, remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can, forgive ourselves, and make the necessary adjustments, keep the bigger picture in focus.