The Power of Episodic Memory in Autism

by | Oct 25, 2019 | RDI® Core Concepts

Welcome to our series on The Power of Episodic Memory in Autism. This is part one of a three part series written by Certified RDI® consultants Sharon Bradbrook-Armit and Kathy Darrow. You can read the part one original on Kathy Darrow’s blog here

What is Episodic Memory?

Our self-identity is formed through personal memories created in specific moments in everyday life that connect emotions, experience and events as lived in episodes, exclusive to us as individuals (Tulving, 2002).

In a nutshell, we could both be in the same place at the same time, we may or may not be there together and yet the emotional experience that we come away with could be very different. For instance, we could be watching a comedy film at the cinema, you could think the film was hilarious and loved every minute of being there and can’t wait to see it again either at the cinema again, or when it comes on TV. Whereas, I may have missed the sense of humour completely and found it to be boring, silly and a waste of money. When we then talk about the film with others we will have a different recall based on the memory, opinion and beliefs that we encoded through our personal emotional experience.

These personal memories allow us to mentally time travel backwards and forwards to re-experience or pre-experience a sense of self at any given point. We can reflect back on these memories and bring the past into the current moment. However, we can also draw on these memories to help inform us what to look out for in a future situation to enable us to have a positive experience. For example, taking into account the film we watched at the cinema the information I encoded may lead me to avoid future films with a certain actor in them, whereas you may look out for films with that same actor in them.

The founder of RDI, Dr. Gutstein has based his work on improving the quality of life for individuals on the autism spectrum by using a mix of research on both typically developing children and research on young children with autism.

Part of Dr. Gutstein’s examination has looked at ‘When’ personal emotional memories begin to be formed. ‘How’ these memories are formed and ‘Why’ they are developmentally important.

‘When’ personal emotional memories begin to be formed

The foundations for episodic memory begin in infancy through the parent-child relationship in which the parent’s participation helps the child to encode personal, emotion filled memories around specific moments, events and episodes.

‘How’ these memories are formed

It is crucial that the child has an active hands-on role both within the encoding and retrieval of memory stages.

The encoding is the child’s own experience of ‘I’m physically and mentally here at this point in time, these are my emotions and this is my own experience of being in this interactive engagement.

Memory formation and recall is scaffolded in small incremental steps by the parent to allow the child to take on increasingly more responsibility. This scaffolding allows the parent to eventually step back as they hand the responsibility of the memory encoding and reflection to their child.

The above is how personal emotionally meaningful memories are formed within the parent and typical child relationship. The emotional feedback from the child enables the parent to automatically step into their scaffolding role without needing to consciously think about the why and how of helping their child to encode memories. 

Research (Tessler and Nelson, 1994, cited in Hedrick et al., 2009), was carried out on 3 year-old children on a museum day out with their mothers. The research demonstrated that the personal emotional memories that these young children formed were not based on what they saw, but on the interaction that took place between themselves and their mothers over materials that they could jointly manipulate.

Taking part in that interactive hands-on experience formed the child’s meaningful unique emotional memory. The child’s mother would have played a vital role in this memory encoding as her involvement would have made certain elements of their joint experience stand out as emotionally more important than other parts of their exploring and experimenting together.

Related: Read a Four part Series on Episodic Memory by Linda Murphy

‘Why’ they are developmentally important

What are the developmental gains? (Based on typical development research)

Reflecting on, or revisiting, these memories through the parent/child relationship initially and eventually of own accord allows a greater sense of self. This allows the child to re-experience a point in time and reflect on the emotions, thoughts, opinions and actions they took. The parental input during this revisit will add further enrichment to the memory, as they share their perspective and what meaningfully stood out for them too. In addition, the parent’s use of language during this sharing of memory is thought to play a role in increasing the child’s language abilities.

Parents who consistently allow their child to reminisce, through their use of a high elaborative conversation style, may increase their child’s own memory organisation and elaborations. Through the child’s reflection on their memories, where they are talking about their emotions, their personal experience and their interpersonal influence the child will start to unpack and make more sense of the event. A kind of ‘category filing’ begins to take place, in which the child compartmentalises these memories into ‘places’, ‘events’ and particular ‘emotions’ felt i.e. happy, sad, angry, surprised etc. Almost unconsciously typically developing children will start to reflect on these past memories to help inform them of what they can do in the present moment or for future planning.

The joint parental and child exploration of the emotion laden memories formed allows the sharing of differing perspectives to take place. In addition, constant revisiting of these memories allows the child to see themselves as changing over time.  For example, a five-year-old visiting a theme park may see an enormous roller coaster ride and just looking at it evokes feelings of fear and anxiety, resulting in refusal to go on the ride and an emotional encoding of ‘I can’t’ memories. Although they may still be happy to watch others on the ride. Fast forward this child is now eight and at the same theme park, this same roller coaster no longer looks as intimidating, the child is not experiencing the same intensity of negative emotions. They now feel they would like to go on the ride and experience it for them self. As a result of this exploration they may now have encoded a positive ‘I can’ memory that totally changes their reflective emotionally connected memory recall and perception of self. For instance, ‘When I was younger that ride looked really frightening. I was too scared to go on it. Now I’m older I’m braver and I like trying new things’.

When parents validate the child’s unique emotional recall of a memory it enables the child to build a sense of self, their self-esteem and self-worth. This sense of self works towards helping the child to be able to be aware of their emotions which in turn allows them the possibility of being able self-regulate those emotions.

Of Note, in contrast to autism being the factor that interrupts the joint parent / child memory sharing and reflection, a study by Goodman et al. (2014, cited in Salmon and Reese, 2015) stated that mother’s with ‘avoidant orientation’ are less likely to prepare their child for an upcoming possibly stressful event, or discuss what had taken place after. Salmon and Reese (2015) concluded that as a consequence the child is more likely to have little self-regulation and to demonstrate distress during and after the event, which in turn negatively affects their memory recall of the event. In addition, Salmon and Reese, state that secure attachment in which the child has ‘built up trust in the parent through his or her everyday interactions (and conversations)’ (2015, p.793), provides a safe haven to retreat to when needed, as well as the ‘confidence to explore their environment’ (2015, p.793).

The child with the aid of a parent, initially, can use their previously encoded emotion laden memories to think about an event that is coming up in the future. For example, if an upcoming situation is likely to be stressful the parent can help their child to revisit memories of something previously experienced as ‘hard/difficult/anxiety causing’ etc. where the child overcame their negative emotions and the event ended on a high note.  This revisit may help the child to emotionally inoculate, which in turn can help them to recognise the onset of negative emotions and more readily self-regulate in the moment, by remembering what has gone before.

By consistently revisiting stored memories where the child may have initially experienced emotions that created ‘worry and I can’t’ feelings but, through their parents guiding and scaffolding, those negative feelings transitioned to a positive outcome, we can help the child to realise that they are empowered and in control of the feelings that they take away from an experience.  In essence the parent can help the child to create resilient ‘I can’ memories, both in the moment and within the memory recall, which will help the child with forward planning by thinking about the outcome they wish to happen and how they can be in control of that outcome.

Lastly, the parent-child discussion of episodic memory can help build a trusting secure relationship to aid the child’s future independent episodic memory encoding, reflection and future thinking usage.


Hedrick, A.M., Haden, C.A., and Ornstein, P.A., (2009) ‘Elaborative Talk During and After an Event: Conversational Style Influences Children’s Memory Reports’J Cogn Dev. 2009 ; 10(3): 188–209. doi:10.1080/15248370903155841

Salmon and Reese (2015), Talking (or Not Talking) about the Past: The Influence of Parent–Child Conversation about Negative Experiences on Children’s Memories Applied Cognitive Psychology, Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 29: 791–801 (2015), Published online in Wiley Online Library ( DOI: 10.1002/acp.3186

Tulving E., (2002), ‘EPISODIC MEMORY: From Mind to Brain’, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2002. 53:1–25

Sharon Bradbrook-Armit a Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) Consultant with a keen interest in helping families affected by autism and individuals on the autism spectrum. She personalises RDI for families, conducts parental training, gives specific client input to staff within schools and has been a guest speaker at autism meetings and conferences. Sharon has more than 25 years personal experience of autism due to her eldest child being on the spectrum. She has 19 years working experience in the autism field. Sharon holds a degree in Childhood and Youth Studies, which has helped her to consolidate the theory and practice behind her RDI training and working knowledge. Sharon is also working directly with Dr Gutstein (RDI founder), to further develop the RDI Dynamic Intelligence Curriculum.

Kathy Darrow has over 16 years experience in the field of Autism, which includes 11 years in RDI®, first as a parent then the past 7 years as a Consultant. Kathy’s passion to help families with children on the spectrum started when her own two children were both diagnosed before three years old. RDI® was not only was miraculous with her children on the spectrum, but as a family affair as parents and siblings. Being handed the poor prognosis those years ago, she never gave up searching for what their boys needed. As she turned to RDI® on a professional level it has been exciting to watch as children and young adults involved in the RDI® program become increasingly competent and resilient in their social world. Kathy works with local families in New Jersey, both at home, school and homeschool, as well as long distance families (multiple U.S. states and oversees).

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