Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often show deficits in the organization and coordination of everyday activities. They have difficulties with time management, preparation and sequencing of actions. These impairments in planning ahead have been found in standard laboratory-based prospective memory tasks (Altgassen et al., 2009; 2010; Mackinlay et al., 2006). However, these few existent studies on prospective memory in ASD have used very abstract tasks that do only allow a limited transfer of these laboratory-based results to participants’ everyday performance.
The purpose of the present study was to apply an everyday-like, ecologically valid task.
Twenty-five adults with high-functioning ASD and 25 age- and ability-matched neurotypical controls were asked to work on standard prospective memory tasks as well as on the Dresden Breakfast task. The latter required participants to prepare breakfast comprising certain drinks (orange juice, tea) and foods (eggs, bread, etc.) following a set of rules and time restrictions that constituted several prospective memory tasks (such as remembering to take the tea bag out of the teapot after 4 minutes).
Controls outperformed the ASD group in the standard, laboratory-based prospective memory tasks. Regarding the Dresden Breakfast task analyses of variance (ANOVAs) revealed group differences in planning measures as well as general task performance and time- and event-based prospective memory performance. Overall, individuals with ASD completed less tasks than controls and showed poorer planning performance. Moreover, groups differed in rule adherence, efficiency and time-monitoring.
Difficulties with planning and execution of complex tasks not only evidenced in standard, laboratory-based tasks as previously found, but also when using an ecologically valid, everyday-like task. Participants with ASD were impaired in the intention formation and initiation phases of prospective remembering. These deficits were related to difficulties in planning, execution and coordination of the tasks (rule adherence, time, efficiency).
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