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Memory, learning and language in autism spectrum disorder

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-12, 09:19 authored by Jill Boucher, Sophie Anns
Background and aims: The ‘dual-systems’ model of language acquisition has been used by Ullman and colleagues to explain patterns of strength and weakness in the language of higher-functioning people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Specifically, intact declarative/explicit learning is argued to compensate for a deficit in non-declarative/implicit procedural learning, constituting an example of the so-called ‘see-saw’ effect. Ullman and Pullman (2015) extended their argument concerning a see-saw effect on language in ASD to cover other perceived anomalies of behaviour, including impaired acquisition of social skills. The aim of this paper is to present a critique of Ullman and colleagues’ claims, and to propose an alternative model of links between memory systems and language in ASD. Main contribution: We argue that a 4-systems model of learning, in which intact semantic and procedural memory are used to compensate for weaknesses in episodic memory and perceptual learning, can better explain patterns of language ability across the autistic spectrum. We also argue that attempts to generalise the ‘impaired implicit learning/spared declarative learning’ theory to other behaviours in ASD are unsustainable. Conclusions: Clinically significant language impairments in ASD are under-researched, despite their impact on everyday functioning and quality of life. The relative paucity of research findings in this area lays it open to speculative interpretation which may be misleading. Implications: More research is need into links between memory/learning systems and language impairments across the spectrum. Improved understanding should inform therapeutic intervention, and contribute to investigation of the causes of language impairment in ASD with potential implications for prevention.


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Autism & Developmental Language Impairments




SAGE Publications



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