Episodic Memory Part 1

by | Mar 2, 2017 | RDI® Core Concepts

This week’s guest author is Certified RDI® Consultant, Linda Murphy who will be sharing a four-part series on Episodic Memory and how it effects individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

Memory is important for everyone in terms of learning, growing and managing more complex social and emotional situations in life.

We use our memories to build and strengthen relationships, to reflect on what we’ve done in order to make plans for the future, and to problem solve based on past experiences.

If we didn’t have memories to draw from, we would hardly move forward in life. Developing meaningful memories is a critical skill for all people including children with autism.

Imagine this: you spend the day in Boston with a friend.

You take the T there, walk around Faneuil Hall, do a little shopping on Newbury Street, have lunch in the North End and visit the swan boats in the Public Garden. In that one day, the memories formed and memories used span a variety of topics.

You probably remember the things that you talked about with your friend or the laughter that you shared, more than you remember any particular item that you looked at while shopping.

Or you probably remember how good your meal tasted, but maybe not the other items that were listed on the menu.

Maybe when you got to the swan boats there was a line and you used your memories of waiting in other lines to appraise how long you might need to wait in this line.

Each of these memories is an example of episodic memory.

Episodic memory refers to one’s autobiographical memory.

As we move and do things throughout our life, we are creating a story about ourselves.

We use this self narrative to share our experiences with others and to negotiate new situations in the future.

Without memories to pull from, the world would be a scary place; any new situation would leave us feeling lost.

With episodic memory, we can enter a new situation and figure out what to do because we remember a similar situation from our past.

Now imagine you took that same trip to Boston with a child who has autism.

His memories may instead be the names of the T stops you rode through, how loud the restaurant was and the anxiety he felt waiting in line to go on the swan boats because he didn’t know how long he was going to have to wait.

What is meaningful moment-to-moment to an autistic child may be different from what is meaningful to another person.

Instead of forming memories that will later help with problem solving and planning, a child with autism may be forming memories that lead to fear of the unknown.

Developing episodic memory is difficult for people with autism, yet it is a critical skill needed for living an independent, happy and stress free life.

It is also one of the foundations of the RDI® Program.

The next parts in this series will discuss how to help autistic children develop episodic memory to experience share, problem solve and develop peer relationships.

Linda Murphy has been a speech language pathologist since 1999. She is also a Certified Early Intervention Specialist and an RDI® Program Certified Consultant – in fact, she is one of the few people in Massachusetts certified to offer the RDI® program. She graduated from Boston College in 1993 with a degree in Mathematics. After spending two years working with adults with autism, she decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Emerson College. Since then, Linda has provided services to children ranging from toddlers to young adults in a range of educational and other settings, including schools, daycares, homes, summer camps, playgrounds, her office and university clinics. She enjoys working collaboratively with families and other members of a child’s team. She has a private practice in Beverly, Massachusetts. For more information, visit her at www.peer-projects.com or read more of her articles at www.examiner.com/x-39111-Boston-Autism-Parenting-Examiner.


  1. Andrew Shahriari

    This short essay about episodic memory is a wonderful example related to semiotics – the study of meaning-making through signs and symbols. For any of you linguists (or ethnomusicologists) out there, you can easily use this as an example of the esthesic process: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esthesic_and_poietic

  2. Nevin Penny

    I am a parent with a young man with autism.I am also founder of the dynamic autism group in London.I’ve got the RDI books and I would like to know more.I would like to read Dr Gutstein’s Memory-1-2 articles please, Thanks

  3. Elizabeth

    Thanks for stopping by. How can we help you?

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