Objectives: We examined performance on a self-referenced memory (SRM) task for higher functioning children with autism (HFA) and a matched comparison group. Individual differences in performance were examined in relation to social cognitive tests of mentalizing and symptom severity.
Methods: Fifty-six children (28 HFA, 28 comparison; 8-16 years) completed a SRM task in which they read a list of words and decided whether the word described something about themselves, something about a fictional character, or contained a certain number of letters. They then identified from a longer list the words that were ‘old’ or familiar. Dependent measures were the proportion of words correctly recalled from each of the three encoding conditions. Children completed The Strange Stories Task and The Children’s Eyes Test as measures of social cognition. Parents completed the SCQ and ASSQ as measures of symptom severity.
Results: Although older children and comparison children showed preferential recognition of self-referenced words, younger children and HFA children did not, F(2, 51) =3.85, p=.03. Instead, HFA children recognized an equal proportion of self and other referenced words. Among children with HFA, enhanced SRM performance was related to lower symptom scores, r(27)=-.46, p=.02. These associations were not accounted for by performance on the mentalizing tasks.
Conclusions: Children with HFA preferentially encoded person-related information, but did not show the standard enhanced processing of self-relevant information. Individual differences in the tendency or capacity to process self-relevant information may serve to modify the expression of social symptoms in children with autism.