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Visual Memory Profile in Children with Autism: The Role of Cognitive Flexibility

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
S. Semino, M. Zanobini and S. Solari, Department of Educational Science (DISFOR), University of Genoa, Genoa, Italy

According to several studies, people with High Functioning Autism (HFA) show preserved abilities in recognition memory (e.g. Boucher, Bigham, Mayes & Muskett, 2008) and cued recall (e.g. Mottron, Morasse & Belleville, 2001), and impaired abilities in memory for emotion-related or person-related materials (e.g. Lind, 2010). Results are mixed in working memory and source memory (e.g. Bigham, Boucher, Mayes & Anns, 2010). On the other side, most of the limited number of research projects involving people with Low Functioning Autism (LFA) highlight inconsistent findings and a less defined pattern of memory functioning. 


  • to evaluate different areas of visual memory abilities in children with LFA and HFA
  • to explore the relationship between memory, cognitive functioning and cognitive flexibility
  • to compare the memory profile of children with LFA and HFA.


The pilot sample is composed of 6 children with LFA (mean age = 10.4) and 6 children with HFA (mean age =10). Evaluation are still ongoing for a second group of children.

Brief IQ of Leiter-R was used to evaluate cognitive functioning. Memory profile was evaluated using the following tasks:

  • Memory for Faces (TEMA, Test di Memoria e Apprendimento – TOMAL),
  • Corsi Tapping Test,
  • Associated Pairs, Forward Memory, Immediate Recognition, Delayed Recognition and Delayed Pairs (Leiter-R).

The Dimensional Change Card Sort Test (DCCS) was used to assess cognitive flexibility. 


Memory profile

The Wilcoxon test was used to compare both subtest results and composite scores. In the group with LFA we found that Sequential Order is lower than Form Completion (p .042), and that Associative Memory composite score is higher than Fluid Reasoning (p. 043), IQ Brief (p .043) and Recognition Memory (p .042). Furthermore we found that Associated Pairs is higher than Forward Memory (p .042) and Memory for Faces (p .041).

The Mann-Whitney test highlighted similar memory performance in children with HFA and LFA, except than in Memory for Faces where HFA group perform better than LFA group (p .004).

Cognitive Flexibility (DCCS)   

None of the children with LFA was able to pass the third phase and the number of total correct answers given by LFA is lower than that given by HFA (p .049). In children with HFA the number of total correct answers given in phase three, correlates with several memory measure. We split the sample in two groups depending on the passing of phase three and we found that the two group show significant difference in several aspects of memory and cognitive functioning. 


Our results suggest that children with autism may have quite intact ability in the associative memory, while they can experience various difficulties in sequential thinking, sequential memory, generation of rules and abstraction.

Flexibility is confirmed to be a weakness in the cognitive profile of autistic children and seems to have a role also in visual perceptive task and in associative memory task, influencing both weakness and  strengthens in the performance.

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