ASD and working memory: strategies for supporting pupils

Improve memory retention for pupils with autism spectrum disorders. Tracy Packiam Alloway outlines what teachers can do to enhance working memory skills

Author details

Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway works in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Florida, and is author of Understanding Working Memory together with Ross Alloway.

Case study: David, age 12

I apologise, but I cannot make any expressions. I simply can’t, so don’t ask me to,’ said 12-year-old David as he entered the room.

He immediately walked to the window and said that he preferred to do the assessment there. He didn’t mean to be brusque, his mother explained, but his awkwardness in social situations was always more pronounced when he was nervous or anxious.

One in 10 children in mainstream classrooms has poor working memory that affects their learning

David, who is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, was happy to have his mother remain in the room throughout the procedure. In fact, she seemed to be his anchor and he'd immediately shift his attention to her when she asked him to focus on the task in hand.

The assessment took longer than usual, as he kept asking for clarification and would then forget what he had been told. However, once he began to understand what he had to do, he performed extremely well, although he became frustrated when a task proved too difficult for him.

When asked whether he liked school, he seemed negative about it and about learning in general. Yet his mother said that he spent hours researching topics that he found interesting. These might not be related to school, however, and for David the term ‘learning’ was associated with classwork.

Mainstream school was a big struggle, as he would often say socially inappropriate things and found the constant presence of other people exhausting. However, he recently joined the online school InterHigh, which provides him with more flexibility and control over what he learns and also more positive social experiences.

What is working memory?

Working memory is the ability to remember and process information. It is critical for learning, from tackling complex tasks such as reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, and word problems to carrying out simple procedures like copying from the board and navigating around school.

There is a growing body of research indicating that working memory skills are important throughout a pupils’s educational career, from nursery to college. In a longitudinal study with British pre-school pupils, we found that working memory skills at age five are a powerful predictor of performance in language and maths six years later.

In addition, many pupils with learning difficulties also have poor working memory. In a large UK government-funded study, we found that one in 10 children in mainstream classrooms has poor working memory that affects their learning.

The ASD profile

Pupils like David have a double deficit: the core difficulties arising from their condition and problems with working memory. In David’s case, a restricted range of language and social skills is coupled with an inability to retain information relayed to him verbally.

These issues are interrelated. When compared to their peers, pupils on the autism spectrum are seven times more likely to achieve very poor scores in verbal short-term memory. As a result, they struggle to master the intricacies of language.

When it comes to organising and manipulating material already stored in the memory, a child’s profile depends on whether they are high or low functioning. Typically, high-functioning pupils can have average to above average verbal working memory, while low-functioning pupils often display deficits in this area.

Support strategies for pupils with ASD

We can support pupils like David through targeted strategies which provide a scaffold for learning and facilitate the retention of information in memory.

Address sensory overload

Pupils with ASD may have an adverse response to certain physical stimuli and can be overwhelmed by different sensory input, like light, noise and heat.

Minimise physical over stimulation so that working memory is not overwhelmed

While this does not directly relate to working memory problems, the intensity of the experience makes it difficult for them to use their working memory to process new information. Thus a few extra minutes spent each day doing a quick check of the classroom environment can make a big difference. One suggestion is to minimise physical over-stimulation so that working memory is not overwhelmed.

Some pupils may also be hypersensitive to certain materials touching their skin, so it makes sense to allow them to take their shoes off in class or give them a cushion for their chair. These simple acts can create a more productive environment that will allow the pupil with ASD to use their working memory efficiently.

Chunk it

A fundamental strategy to assist with working memory difficulties is to break down information into bite-sized chunks to reduce working memory processing.

Avoid multi-tasking

Pupils with ASD find multi-tasking difficult because they expend so much effort shifting their attention from one task to another, their working memory can’t cope with the strain. Consequently, they fail to complete either task adequately.

Avoid this by getting them to focus on one thing at a time – listening to a lecture and then writing up notes afterwards, for example, rather than attempting both activities simultaneously.

Training working memory

One of my research interests is to establish whether working memory can be improved and I had the pleasure of working with a non-profit organisation which included children with autism in clinical trials investigating this idea. The eight-week study used a computer program called Jungle Memory.

Pupils were allocated to one of three groups:

  1. the training group, which used the program four times a week
  2. the active control, which used it once a week
  3. the non-active control.

The establishment of a control group that trained less frequently was important because it provided a comparison to make sure that any improvements detected weren’t simply due to the novelty value of the program.

We assessed all the pupils on their working memory, IQ, and language skills before the trial, immediately afterwards, and eight months later. In the post-trial tests, the training group showed great improvements in all three areas. Meanwhile, the active control group showed minimal improvements and the non-active control showed no difference compared to their baseline performance.

Of course you would expect repeated practice of the same activity to produce positive results. But the key question is: does the impact of a brain training programme transfer to real-world activities? In other words, can you get better at something other than the training game itself? These findings demonstrated that the benefits were indeed being transferred into other areas of the pupils’ lives.

The most exciting finding was that these improvements were maintained at the eight-month follow-up, suggesting that there was some lasting change in the pupils’ academic performance as a result of the training.


  • Alloway, T.P., Bibile, V. & Lau, G. (2013). Computerized Working Memory Training: Can it lead to gains in cognitive skills in students? Computers & Human Behavior, 29, 632–638
  • Alloway, T.P. & Elsworth, M. (2012). An investigation of cognitive skills and behavior in high ability students. Learning and Individual Differences
  • Alloway, T.P., Rajendran, G., & Archibald, L.M. (2009). Working memory profiles of children with developmental disorders. Journal of Learning Difficulties, 42, 372–82

This article is taken from Special Children Magazine, issue 226. PDF versions of the magazines are available to download in the My Account area under My Magazines for subscribers of the Knowledge Centre and Premium CPD.


Last Updated: 
07 Jun 2019