Working Memory and Spatial Relations Skill in Autistic Children: Informative Essay

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University of California, Santa Barbara
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Autism is a common developmental disorder characterized by causing compelling social interaction, communication, and behavioral challenges. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) causes severe brain malfunction and interferes with an individual’s capability to figure out what is heard, seen, or heard. This disorder brings about tremendous challenges in one’s behavior and the intelligence to communicate and relate to other people. Over the recent years, the probability of a child being diagnosed with this disorder has increased drastically. Children diagnosed with this disorder usually battle with a pattern of chronic challenges while executing daily tasks, a broader concept called an executive function (EF) specifically about working memory (WM) and spatial relation skills of an individual. In this paper, I will be discussing this disorder on how it affects the working memory and spatial ability of a child, and all the possible ways of treating it.

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Working Memory

Working memory or simply short-term memory refers to the brain’s ability to store and process information at the same time. WM is one major area of executive function (EF) due to its activity in the regulative aspect of the brain and the role of giving an individual a goal-assisted behavior. Most researchers have a common view that WM consists of several functional components. However, information on the exact attribute and composition of these components is still under debate. In an attempt to solve this riddle, Atkinsons and Shiffrins (1968) created an extremely successful multi-store model regarding the volume of research it generated. However, it became apparent that their research had some problems with their ideas concerning some features of short-term memory.

According to Baddeley and Hitch (1974), the concept of short-term memory (STM) is too simple as illustrated by the Multi-Store Model. According to this model, the STM is a unitary system lacking any subsystems and controls only a limited volume of information with a relatively low processing speed of the information stored over a short period. Therefore, the short-term memory has been replaced by the working memory since it’s not a unitary store as the Multi-Store Model claims.

Input → Sensory Memory → Attention → Working Memory → Long-Term Memory

Fig 1. The Working Memory Model (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974)

The Working Memory consists of different subsystems where different types of information are stored contrary to the one single store portrayed by the Multi-Store Model. These subsystems include:

Central Executive

The central executive is the boss of the larger Working Memory and drives the full system. This organization performs cognitive tasks like problem-solving and mental computations. Moreover, this system allocates data to other major subsystems such as the Visuospatial sketchpad, the phonological loop, and the Episodic Buffer.

Visiuospatial Sketchpad

Also known as the inner eye of a brain. This is a subsystem used by the brain to process stored data in a spatial or visual form. The specific system is the one responsible for navigation purposes.

This is a subsystem of the Working Memory that handles both the written and spoken materials. It consists of the Phonological Store or the inner ear and the Articulatory control process also known as the inner voice. The phonological store holds information which is a speech based on the form of spoken words for 1-2 seconds. This subsystem is interconnected to speech perception. The Articulatory control process, on the other hand, is linked to speech management and production. Verbal data from the phonological store is rehearsed and stored in this subsystem.

Fig.2. The Working Memory Model Components (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974)

The Episodic Buffer

Baddeley (2000) updated the original model after it had failed to explain results from various experiments. This component provides backup to both the long-term memory and the components of Working Memory.

Fig 3. Updated model to include the Episodic Buffer

Spatial Relations Skills

Spatial relation skills involve the ability of a person to mentally create two or three dimensions of objects and figures in space including a relative position of those objects and the distance separating them. Individuals suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD) usually perform poorly on tasks requiring them to use their spatial ability to solve problems. In the case of classic autism, individuals perform poorly in activities with more verbal actions as compared to activities involving performance actions. Even though performance scores are still low, the additional language impairment in these individuals poses a great challenge towards verbal actions.

Hans Asperger, who discovered Asperger’s disorder formulated that autism disorder is a form of masculinity. This theory is currently under research by Simon Baron and other scientists whereby they give notable evidence on this theory by naming genetic differences and high testosterone levels as possible causes thereby higher risk of suffering from this disorder. On average, the majority of males have the higher spatial ability. Therefore, one would expect individuals with autism to have a high spatial ability if this disorder is an extreme type of masculinity. However, this is not the case. The relation between spatial ability and testosterone is such that there exists a maximum testosterone level for the spatial ability for each sex. Optimal testosterone levels lie below the male average and above the female testosterone average. This theory predicts that females with this disorder have a relatively higher spatial ability. The males, on the other hand, will possess a lower spatial ability.


As I have discussed above, working memory deficits in individuals with ASD are spread across a wide range of chronological and mental ages. This disorder is usually found in individuals and children within the first three years of their life. However, some cases are hard to detect, and the condition isn’t found until the condition is spotted by someone with experience who is always with the child.

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