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Press Release for Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Visual Working Memory May Provide Clues to Autism’s Social Struggles

Media Contact: Joanna Norris, Director
Department of Public Relations
(904) 620-2102

 Poor visual working memory can play an important role in the struggles experienced by autistic children, according to a new study conducted by Dr. Tracy Alloway, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Florida.

The study, in collaboration with Dr. Tahir Seed, senior psychologist based with Early Intervention Services in Ireland, is the first to show that autistic children struggle to process and remember visual information. Working memory—the active processing of information—is an important skill, linked to grades from kindergarten through college.

The aim of this study was to compare the working memory profiles of autistic children with typically developing children. The results, recently published in the International Journal of Educational Research, suggest that children with autism have much worse visual working memory compared to typically developing students.

“This deficit can have important implications for how autistic children process their social environment. They may struggle to process visual cues on the playground, which can make it harder for them to relate to their peers,” said Alloway, also the author of “The Working Memory Advantage.”

UNF researchers recruited 96 eight- and nine-year-old children, all from middle-income homes; some were diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, some intellectual disabilities and specific language impairment, while others were typically developing kids.

The students were given 12 standardized tests from the Automated Working Memory Assessment, a computer-based standardized battery developed by Alloway, comprised of verbal working memory, which required them to remember letters and numbers in backwards order, as well as visual working memory tests, which entailed remembering the location and orientation of different shapes.

“This research suggests that visual working memory may play an important role in developing social skills in children with autism,” said Alloway. “Given that 1 in almost 70 children receive a diagnosis of autism, it’s important to target foundational skills that best support autistic children.”

Poor visual working memory has many impacts. It can affect students with autism in the classroom, as well as on the playground. In the classroom, poor visual working memory can make it harder to understand math concepts, and even solve simple arithmetic. Visual working memory functions like a mental blackboard, so it’s difficult for autistic children to carry out addition and subtraction problems in their head.

Additionally, poor visual working memory can also affect social interactions. Individuals use visual working memory to read body language and other social cues, so they can respond accordingly. A student with autism may struggle with processing the nonverbal communication from their peers, resulting in the social complications they often experience.

For more information about the study, visit

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