• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
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Remembering in Pictures: Visual Recall

Old handheld television Many of us on the autism spectrum have difficulty with short-term memory, but excellent long-term memory.  I have an extremely vivid memory of pieces of my childhood, before I could speak, before I should be able to remember. Memories of crying in my crib at night with my parents asleep nearby. I remember how dark the room was, and how afraid I felt. It is a crystal clear snapshot imprinted in my brain. I can remember with vivid detail, not everything, but just glimpses of early childhood, situations, places, and conversations that took place. It is like looking back at an old photo album and remembering.  I cannot, however, remember where I put my coffee cup down five seconds ago, what I walked into the living room to do, where I put my keys, or in which parking spot I left my vehicle. I cannot remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday, but give me a decade or so and I may be able to recall this morning with vivid details and sometimes in full motion pictures. I never thought anyone remembered life any other way, why would I? This is the thing about my own autism, I am always discovering new things  and areas in which I never even realized I was different than everyone else. 

A Facebook discussion the other day about old memories made me start thinking about visual recall, remembering in pictures, and I realized that I systematically file away everything I need by looking at it.  As many of you know, we are in the middle of a big move and I am doing a lot of unpacking and rearranging.  I should say arranging because I rarely ever EVER re-arrange.  Wherever an item starts out at in the house is where it will live forever, which is why it is so important for me to set-up the house the “right” way the first time! That said, I have a terrible time finding anything that anyone else put away.  It doesn’t matter if you told me where you put it, I have to physically SEE you put it there.  Many times my husband will show me something and say, “I am putting this is the top drawer in the kitchen next to the oven.” That is when I say, “Wait, let me see where you are putting it.” 

As soon as I physically see him place the item in the drawer, I know where it is.  I will remember where it is, I will ALWAYS know where it is. But—if I don’t physically see it in its place, when I need it, I cannot recall for the life of my where it is, where he said he put it, and even if I remember I tend to not be able to find it.  Until I began to contemplate this visual recall, I didn’t even realized what I was doing. 

In my mental files, my spatula is in the top drawer next to the oven. I am happily getting ready to make pancakes. Needing that spatula, I grab the handle, fling the draw open, put my hand it, and “oh no-what?? No spatula!” World breaks down—seriously.  I feel panicky, very angry and disoriented.  Who the hell moved my spatula?!! Now the search begins. I frantically pull open all the other draws—not there.  Look in the sink, the dish drain—nope.  Pancakes are burning.  I am upset.  Why oh why would someone move it??  Why?

My whole system is jarred. Spatula could be right next to the stove, but I don’t see it sitting there on the counter because it is not where my brain is telling me is should be. It feels like walking right into a brick wall. Now I am beginning to understand why I get so incredibly upset when people (kids, husband, even the dog) moves my stuff!

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.