Semantic processing in the free recall of autistic children: Further evidence for a cognitive deficit


Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA 02125, USA


Two memory experiments were conducted with groups of autistic, mentally retarded and normal children, matched on verbal mental age and digit span. In the first experiment free recall of semantically related and semantically unrelated word lists was investigated. Autistic children were found to be comparable to the control groups in recalling the unrelated list; however, they were significantly poorer in recalling words from the related list. The second experiment utilized a cued recall paradigm, comparing the subjects' ability to use semantic and rhyme cues to retrieve unrecalled words from memory. This time the autistic children were no different from the retarded and normal children in using semantic cues. These findings extend earlier work on cognitive deficits specific to autism, suggesting that autistic children cannot make use of linguistic knowledge to facilitate retrieval of stored information. It is speculated that this failure to use memory strategies is related to autistic children's hypothesized deficit in developing a ‘theory of mind’.