Memory and the Workplace: Extending Research Principles into Practical Benefits


The above article is written by Dermot Bowler, Professor of Autism & Memory at City University, London. It is listed under the Asperger syndrome (ASD) section of the current Online Awares Conference being run by Autism2007, and looks at the recall i.e. memory of information by adults with ASD.

Memory has been a particular subject of interest for me as there are aspects of information retention and recall that I have found problematic in a business context. Unless the information is of personal interest, I often struggle to retain it; especially in any detail.

I have also generally struggled to retain information delivered verbally and have required people seeking to communicate detailed instruction to do so in written form.

I have known for some time about Professor Dermot Bowler’s work and found it both informative and highly relevant in a work context. Though it is not directly related to a work context, the lessons are directly applicable to a high degree.

His paper focuses on research into the recall and organisation of information by via oral and written analysis using ASD and Comparison, i.e. neuro-typcal (NT), persons. It starts with the generally accepted premise that people with ASD have not only a global cognitive impairment, but a social one too.

The global cognitive impairment typically revolves around three areas:

i) impaired understanding of the mental state of others, i.e. empathizing;
ii) executive dysfunction;
iii) weak central coherence (understanding the overall picture)

Weak Central Coherence is the opposite to Working or Short-term Memory. According to the paper, the latter with ASD’s is usually in line with general developmental levels, as is Cued Recall (i.e. specific words or data that enable effective identification) using semantic (meaning) or phonological prompts.

I personally, have never totally concurred with this assertion. One of my strengths as a manager, I believe, has been my ability to analyse situations and deduce the key dynamics operating within them to then formulate effective strategic appraisals. Indeed, colleagues have sometimes criticised me for being insufficiently willing to take related detail into account or being too “blue sky” in my thinking, rather than, being pragmatic.

“Recognition” (something that has been previously seen, experienced or learned) memory is then discussed. The research is uncertain what factors contribute to impaired recognition or the ability to freely recall items.

With the latter, with semantically or associatively related items, ASD’s are less likely to use a “related” approach. In other words, the appearance of one word relating to – say – a market or product does not automatically cue recall of others.

My performance in this area tends to be mixed. Where the subject (semantic) is of interest, I find I can recall related matter in great detail; where not, my recall tends to be poor.

This relates to the general assertion (Hermelin) that autism means being less able to “encode information meaningfully” due to semantic deficits. From a business perspective, this has meant that previously, I have not absorbed all the information relevant to an event or discussion. In other words, I have been able to see the wider picture (strong central coherence) but have excluded detail that I believe has not been relevant to it, even though it actually has! To try to mitigate this, I associate things I feel I can remember with the data being discussed.

The paper then looks at how prototype (sample) formation – an abstract mental representation based on exemplars (items belonging to a category) – is impaired in children with Asperger but not adults. In other words: there is an absence or simple lack of knowledge that prevents formation of conceptualisations from existing knowledge being formed for future benefit. This suggests that a global cognitive impairment, not ASD per se, is to blame and relates to the way “to be remembered” material is learned. For me, remembering key lessons from a past marketing plan would be a useful analogy.

In one sense I find this a positive as it is saying that knowledge can be acquired as well as other people in adulthood. However, I still feel that my mode of learning – in relation to certain subject matter – is inefficient. I need to fully understand the concept that relates to information if I am to learn – and remember – effectively. Normally, I can only do this if I relate a concept to a real life scenario.

The paper alludes to this. To date, research has largely focused on single trials that have not been able to explore the evolution of the development of memory in any meaningful way.

For example, research by Munster & Goldstein found that memory performance declines significantly for ASD’s when a great deal of information needs to be assimilated and recalled. The paper asserts that the ability (or speed) to learn also exerts an influence.

I can concur with this also. Initially I can record data well provided I am not required to do so for long periods. Among the methods I have formulated to overcome this is to try and ensure that, when I do learn, I do so without any distractions; that I break the learning of large amounts of material up into smaller sessions and; as mentioned above, fully grasp the overall concept of any data before trying to assimilate related detail and facts.

The way information is organised [for recall] cognitively is then examined and a clear distinction identified between that which is verbally presented when compared to the written form.

Lower Subjective Organisation (SO) it is asserted is found in people with damage to the frontal lobe part of the brain, something that is thought to be the case for people with Asperger. This causes difficulties in the patterns of memory performance.

Dermot Bowler’s work seeks to investigate some of this and other issues. With the free recall of items he found ASD’s make slightly more errors than NT’s, but not initially. What happens is that a person with ASD ability to freely recall items plateau’s much earlier – they have less ability to sustain the process.

I feel that, perhaps, this relates not only to my ability to learn and memorise, but also my ability to concentrate. In long meetings I tend to start well: I memorise data and can follow any dialogue relatively easily. Over time, however, my lower ability to concentrate comes into play. I miss important information or statement’s which means that I lose the thread of a discussion, something I find difficult to recover.

These outcomes can impact negatively not only on my ability to recall information for later use – and, therefore, my managerial or work performance – but also the perception of me by colleagues if I ask for clarification!

It is then asserted that recall is much easier when cues are offered; in particular when they are written and not oral. What I found especially interesting, is the result that there are higher levels of intrusion: i.e. unfamiliar or inappropriate words are brought into the evaluation. I have often been guilty of complicating any analysis with excessive verbiage and wonder whether the inclusion of words that are largely irrelevant are a result of the absence of cues.

I found the papers’ conclusion that people with Asperger do not develop [information] organising strategies homogenously accurate. I have had to develop my own techniques for retaining information in the workplace. This has usually revolved around written notes for consideration and mental assimilation later.

The paper arrives at four main conclusions:

1. Asperger respondents are unimpaired in the free recall of unrelated words when presented with a single i.e. short, trial (tests) – (I concur);
2. There is diminished oral free recall and a subtly diminished written free recall when it is measured over successive trials for ASD’s, i.e. where there is long duration of testing. Intrusion levels are also higher suggesting that there is difficulty inhibiting the articulation of unrelated words (or thoughts) that come to mind when recalling items.

(I concur strongly with the latter point. I find it very hard during conversations and meetings to prevent alternative thoughts from interfering with the subject matter and my thought processes).

This phenomenon, however, is not apparent with written information. So, when procedures that offer support (such as recall or recognition cues) are provided, memory capability improves. In addition, the fewer intrusions apparent in written recalls suggest that memory errors are less likely when there is a lasting record of output.

(This is the reason why I make notes during meetings and, where the subject matter is important, write them up more comprehensively later for future reference. Doing so also aids my memory of the information overall. Asking for clarification from colleagues about statements or data where I am uncertain about something is also important as the responses provide cues ).

3. ASD’s tend to engage in less subjective organisation of studied material. So, where information has to be organised over time to optimise performance, ASD’s are more tied to the structure of incoming stimuli and less reliant on stored representations. With any present task this impairs free recall performance to some extent.

Where there is a tendency to recall according to the structure of a learned list, rather than abstract features such as semantic or associative relatedness among items, memory is not limited in the case of people with AS. Further research is therefore needed to establish a relationship between semantic and serial clustering across related and unrelated material.

(This implies that a person with AS may be less able or less disposed to critically appraise and making inferences from incoming information or any related dialogue).

I can resonate with all of this and believe that I have, to a degree, been less rigorous in my questioning of any facts or statements by others. Instead, I have tended to take, and retain, things too readily at face value).

4. The research’s key finding is the idiosyncratic nature of ASD’s patterns of [memory] organisation. With NT’s, a common pattern is apparent – a shared, common knowledge base relating to a specific subject is used and around which memory is organised, i.e. there is a pre-existing semantic/knowledge framework that prompts recall of certain, related words that can be recalled in clusters for future use. With ASD’s, each person differs in approach.

(With me, if I am interested in, and understand, the information, then I believe I do relate it – and recall it – effectively. In other words, in this case I can organise information. However, I need to code uninteresting information more effectively if I am to improve my memory for use in a work context).

Perhaps the most insightful observation comes in the paper’s conclusion. This is that semantic and associative relatedness are, to some extent, socially and culturally defined world aspects. As a result, the social limitations of someone with Asperger mean they are less likely to use them to organise the learning of new material. One example as to how this can be detrimental in a work context is how the lack of close – and supportive – relationships mean that understanding of concepts, information, work and technical practices can be hindered by the lack of rapport and feedback given by colleagues.

In conclusion it is stated that how people with Asperger organise memory of learned items remains unclear. Consequently, the world is organised according to unconventional and differently weighted combinations of features resulting in non-converging – i.e. individual, organisational memory retention patterns.

I am sure that this has been the case with me in a work context. I have in the past paid insufficient attention to the viewpoints (empathy) of others and failed to accommodate them in my overall thinking. As a result, my arguments have been open to perhaps unnecessary criticism and I have – unintentionally – courted opposition from other managers who have been affronted by my unwillingness to listen to them or incorporate their views.

This point is mirrored by the final research quoted by Mottrons & Burack whose Enhanced Perceptual Functioning Model asserts that ASD’s draw on both conceptual (high level) and perceptual (low level) processes, with an emphasis on the latter.

ASD’s rely less on semantics as a result and this leads to individual [memory] organisational styles that may inhibit the construction of shared social representations of material. In other words, lower empathy with, and acceptance of, the views and position of others causes less harmonious inter-personal relationships.

The last point is something I am going to be giving a great deal of further thought to!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome