Subjective Organisation in the Free Recall Learning of Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome

  • Dermot M. BowlerEmail author
  • Sebastian B. Gaigg
  • John M. Gardiner
Original Paper


Single trial methods reveal unimpaired free recall of unrelated words in Asperger’s syndrome (AS). When repeated trials are used (free recall learning), typical individuals show improved recall over trials, subjective organisation of material (SO) and a correlation between free recall and SO. We tested oral (Experiment 1) and written (Experiment 2) free recall over 16 trials in adults with AS and typical individuals. Across both experiments AS participants showed marginally diminished recall. Poorer SO was seen in the Asperger group only in Experiment 2, but in both experiments, individual differences in SO in the Asperger group were less likely to converge over trials. This lack of convergence suggests that the AS group organise material in idiosyncratic ways.


Asperger’s syndrome Memory Free recall Subjective organization Learning 



The work reported in this paper was supported by a project grant from the Wellcome Trust to the first and second authors. An earlier report of the work was presented to the International Meeting for Autism Research, Sacramento, May 2004.


  1. Ameli, R., Courchesne, E., Lincoln, A., Kaufman, A. S., & Grillon, C. (1988). Visual memory processes in high-functioning individuals with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 18, 601–615.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders , fourth edition—Text Revision. Washington, DC: The Association.Google Scholar
  3. Andreasen, N. C., Nopoulos, P., Schultz, S., Miller, D., Gupta, S., Swayze, V., & Flaum, M. (1994). Positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia: Past, present, and future. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Suppl., 384, 51–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barth, C., Fein, D., & Waterhouse, L. (1995). Delayed match-to-sample performance in autistic children. Developmental Neuropsychology, 11, 53–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bennetto, L., Pennington, B. F., & Rogers, S. J. (1996). Intact and impaired memory function in autism. Child Development, 67, 1816–1835.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Beversdorf, D. Q., Smith, B. W., Crucian, G. P., Anderson, J. M., Keillor, J. M., Barrett, A. M., Hughes, J. D., Felopulos, G. J., Bauman, M. L., Nadeau, S. E., & Heilman, K. M. (2000). Increased discrimination of “false memories” in autism spectrum disorder. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97, 8734–8737.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boucher, J., & Bowler, D. M. (in press). Memory in autism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Boucher, J., & Warrington, E. K. (1976). Memory deficits in early infantile autism: Some similarities to the amnesic syndrome. British Journal of Psychology, 67, 73–87.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Bowler, D. M., Gardiner, J. M., & Berthollier, N. (2004). Source memory in Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 533–542.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bowler, D. M., Gardiner, J. M., & Grice, S. (2000a). Episodic memory and remembering in adults with Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 305–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bowler, D. M., Gardiner, J. M., Grice, S., & Saavalainen, P. (2000b). Memory illusions: False recall and recognition in adults with Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 663–672.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bowler, D. M., Matthews, N. J., & Gardiner, J. M. (1997). Asperger’s syndrome and memory: Similarity to autism but not amnesia. Neuropsychologia, 35, 65–70.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Brébion, G., David, A., Jones, H., & Pilowsky, L. (2004). Semantic organization and verbal memory efficiency in patients with schizophrenia. Neuropsychology, 18, 378–383.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Burack, J. A., Enns, J. T., Stauder, J. E. A., Mottron, L., & Randolph, B. (1997). Attention and autism: Behavioural and electrophysiological evidence. In D. J. Cohen, & F. R. Volkmar (Eds.), Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders (pp. 226–247). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  15. Davis, H. F., Small, S. A., Stern, Y., Mayeux, R., Feldstein, S. N., & Keller, F. R. (2003). Acquisition, recall and forgetting of verbal information in long-term memory by young, middle-aged and elderly individuals. Cortex, 39, 1036–1091.Google Scholar
  16. Eslinger P. J., & Grattan, L. M. (1994). Altered serial position learning after frontal lobe lesion. Neuropsychologia 32, 729–739.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Frith, U., & Happé, F. (1994). Autism: Beyond “theory of mind”. Cognition, 50, 115–132.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gardiner, J. M., Bowler, D. M., & Grice, S. (2003). Perceptual and conceptual priming in autism: An extension and replication. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 259–269.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gershberg, F. B., & Shimamura, A. P. (1995). Impaired use of organizational strategies in free recall following frontal lobe damage. Neuropsychologia, 33, 1305–1333.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Happé, F. (1999). Autism: Cognitive deficit or cognitive style?. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 216–222.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hermelin, B., & O’Conor, N. (1967). Remembering of words by psychotic and subnormal children. British Journal of Psychology, 58, 213–218.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Hermelin, B., & O’Connor, N. (1971). Psychological experiments with autistic children. Oxford: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  23. Hill, E. L. (2004a). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 26–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hill, E. L. (2004b). Evaluating the theory of executive dysfunction in autism. Developmental Review, 24, 189–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kahana, M. J., & Wingfield, A. (2000). A functional relation between learning and organization in free recall. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 7, 516–521.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Klinger, L. G., & Dawson, G. (2001). Prototype formation in Autism. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 111–124.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Loranger, A. W. (1984). Sex difference in age at onset of schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry, 41, 157–161.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Minshew, N. J., & Goldstein, G. (1992) Is autism an amnesic disorder?: Evidence from the california verbal learning test. Neuropsychology, 7, 209–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Molesworth, C. J., Bowler, D. M., & Hampton, J. A. (2005). Memory for modal prototypes in high-functioning children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 661–672.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mottron, L., Burack, J. (2001). Enhanced perceptual functioning in the development of autism. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman, N. Yirmiya, & P. R. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp. 131–148). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  31. Mottron, L., Burack, J. A., Iarocci, G., Belleville, S., & Enns, J. (2003). Locally oriented perception with intact global processing among adolescents with high-functioning autism: evidence from multiple paradigms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 904–913.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mottron, L., Dawson, M., Soulières, I., Hubert, B., & Burack, J. (2006). Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: An update and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36.Google Scholar
  33. Mottron, L., Morasse, K., & Belleville, S. (2001). A study of memory functioning in individuals with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42, 253–260.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Navon, D. (1977). Forest before trees: The precedence of global features in visual perception. Cognitive Psychology, 9, 353–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. O’Connor, N., & Hermelin, B. (1967). Auditory and visual memory in autistic and normal children. Journal of Mental Deficiency Research, 1, 126–131.Google Scholar
  36. Poirier, M., Bowler, D. M., & Gaigg, S. B. (2004). Digit span in adults with Asperger’s syndrome. Poster presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research, Sacramento, 2004.Google Scholar
  37. Schiffman, J., Walker, E., Ekstrom, M., Schulsinger, F., Sorensen, H., & Mednick, S. (2004). Childhood videotaped social and neuromotor precursors of schizophrenia: A prospective investigation. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161, 2021–2027.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Smith, B. J., Gardiner, J. M., & Bowler, D. M. (in press). Deficits in free recall persist in Asperger’s syndrome despite training in the use of list-appropriate learning strategies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.Google Scholar
  39. Sternberg, R. J., & Tulving, E. (1977). The measurement of subjective organization in free recall. Psychological Bulletin, 84, 539–556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Summers, J. A., & Craik, F. I. M. (1994). The effects of subject-performed tasks on the memory performance of verbal autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 773–783.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1985a). Basic level and superordinate level categorization by autistic, mentally retarded, and normal children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 40, 450–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1985b). The conceptual basis for referential word meaning in children with autism. Child Development, 56, 1167–1178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1991). Semantic processing in the free recall of autistic children: Further evidence for a cognitive deficit. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9, 417–430.Google Scholar
  44. Tager-Flusberg, H. (2002). A re-examination of the theory of mind hypothesis of autism. In J. Burack, T. Charman, N. Yirmiya, & P. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp. 173–193). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  45. Toichi, M., & Kamio Y. (2002). Long-term memory and levels-of-processing in autism. Neuropsychologia, 40, 964–969.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tomasello, M., Kruger, A., & Ratner, H. (1993). Cultural learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16, 450–488.Google Scholar
  47. Tulving, E. (1962). Subjective organisation in the free recall of “unrelated” words. Psychological Review, 69, 344–354.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tulving, E. (1968). Theoretical issues in free recall. In T.R. Dixon, & D.L. Horton (Eds.), Verbal behavior and general behavior theory (pp. 1–68). Englewood Cliffs: NJ. Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  49. Ungerer, J. A., & Sigman, M. (1987). Categorization skills and receptive language development in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17, 3–16.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Wing, L., & Gould, J. (1979). Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: Epidemiology and classification. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9, 11–29.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dermot M. Bowler
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sebastian B. Gaigg
    • 1
  • John M. Gardiner
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCity UniversityLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of SussexBrightonUK

Personalised recommendations