The party trick that comes at a price: The autistic memory

Being autistic entails having the memory of an elephant. Well that’s the theory anyway. But it ain’t as simple as it looks. Read on…

Photograph taken by the author, San Diego Zoo, March 1997.

Photograph taken by the author, San Diego Zoo, March 1997.

At four I could unknowingly wow a friend of my mother’s by knowing a Beatrix Potter book off by heart.

At six I could astound people that this weird kid knew the names of all the Brussels Metro stations (we lived out there for a short while).

At eight I very briefly had a hobby of academic value (usually the secret behind every Aspie’s career success see Questioning the Genius Gene) when I memorised the dates of all the post-Saxon monarchs of England. By autumn of that year we had moved to a class with less of an emphasis on history and now I can barely remember the dates of the pre-Tudor kings, much less the order the Plantagenet ones came in.

At nine I could bore people to tears with the name of every Doctor Who serial transmitted up to that point even though I still had yet to see 90% of them and could not get into the novelisations.

At my hip-to-be-square independent school it paid to know the words to almost every Beatles song. If you were going to be nerdy and cool at the same time then your memory was best used on something that interested your peers just as much as you and as I read up on rock music I did not have the pocket money to discover all at once, I gained more of a niche there.

It was one Friday evening at the age of sixteen I was on the train home from said school enjoying the company of some of the boarders off home for the weekend. I happened to ask one of them where his ultimate destination was. When he said where it was, I automatically said “Ah so you’ll be changing at…”

“Wow how did you know that?”

“I memorised the map when I was nine.”

Not everyone present had fallen victim to my closet obsession with Britain’s rail network. I’d long since discovered it went down a lot better to discuss my classic rock obsession. But now I could say “I memorised the map when I was nine” I could put it in the past, almost as if to say “I used to be an anorak but I’m all right now!” Like hell! I still was one, I just kept it in the closet more as rail electrification vanished from the then-government’s agenda and Doctor Who was consigned to the mothballs at the BBC for over a decade.

All of a sudden it became a habit among the boarders to say to me”OK, I’m going to XYZ station this weekend. Do you know the route?”

Of course they already knew it but again they were astounded at the slightly odd kid’s memory. One of them later recounted to me that it was a game they would play with me when they were bored.

Adulthood has proved no different. Memory for some things increases but for other things detail gets forgotten. There are some savants with exceptionally good memories but even mine lags behind them even if it may be ahead of many neurotypicals (Aspie talk for those not on the spectrum). Here then is a list of five important things to remember about the autistic memory – well mine anyway:

1. It’s not always automatic: Ignore any teacher who says “If you can remember all the albums by your favourite group then you can remember what I’m telling you in this lesson.” The information coming may be coming from the teacher faster than the Aspie can take on board, much less get down neatly in their exercise book at the required pace. Today’s powerpoint presentations in schools have gone some way towards eliminating this problem with their concise lists of bullet points but back in the eighties there was still a lot of talk and chalk methods around. But I digress here…

2. It’s not infallible: You can forget some things with time – to me this actually comes as a great relief as it reduces any superficial wow factor. I can recall a time when I had so little going on in my life, almost all I could take on board were church preaching rotas, how many nights my neighbour and fellow congregant had been able to give me a lift to said church in the preceding year or so. All I can say is thank God I got back to embracing my hobbies with gusto not long afterwards. I can still name every track on albums by most of my favourite artists (note I say MOST rather than ALL). But I now have to remind myself what that station on the funny bit of Metropolitan Line between the Jubilee and Piccadilly parallel sections is (I’ve just had a look – it’s West Harrow).

3. It’s not photographic: you still need an aide memoire to refer back to. You might remember a surprising amount – say nine out of ten past football champions (not one of my hobbies but hey) but you still might get a couple in the wrong order initially until you’ve looked at the list a couple more times.

4. It works best with structure: Stations and the order they come in, lists of albums (1. Please Please Me, 2. With the Beatles, you get the idea) – personally I use numbers a lot in my memorising. To this day if you mention the name of an album I like either how many albums the artist had done by then or the year it came out will flash to mind if not both.

5. It comes at a cost: This is the most important thing to remember. Some of us will always be happy to show off our memory as a party trick. I admit I am with closer friends who’ve earned my confidence over the years. But some don’t like it at all – gauge carefully in each individual case. The cost it comes at is the set of challenges we meet that you lucky neurotypical types don’t.

I once saw a documentary called The Real Rain Man. This profiled savant autistic Kim Peek (1951-2009) whose meeting with screenwriter Barry Morrow led to the making of the movie Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman which led to a fair amount of autistic stereotyping as well as actually being a pretty good picture. This guy was seriously savant. I don’t mean that insultingly. A group of students asked him what day of the week Sir Walter Raleigh was executed on. He worked it out automatically. My aunts tell me I used to have this gift but all I can say is either I had very little going on in my life at the time or I had just worked out family ones and left it at that. At any rate I can’t recall ever having that good a knowledge of our calendrical system.

But the point here is that at one point in the documentary, Peek had his brain scanned. The surgeons showed him the results – it turned out that the main connection between the two halves of his brain was missing and that the fibres that should have been going along that pathway were going instead to other parts of the brain, hence why he lacked mental abilities many neurotypicals would have while also having many that they wouldn’t. If this doesn’t turn out to be the case in every autistic brain, I’ll eat my hat (see I DO get metaphor!).

So when you enjoy our encyclopaedic memories, remember also our struggles.

For they are the price of the party trick.

P.S. “Oh no if you please ma’am, that’s a damask tablecloth belonging to Jenny Wren. Look how it’s stained with currant wine. It’s very bad to wash,” said Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

Quote from The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter, (C) Frederick Warne and Co Ltd 1905.