Sunday, January 20, 2008

Forming an Autobiographical Self

Pamela's memory of her life (autobiographical memory) is somewhat static because she remembers her life in terms of statistics. She is masterful at pinpointing the places and times of events in her life, right down to the day of the week. In her journal in a box, a review of the year 2007, she recorded every day faithfully, regardless of whether or not something special happened. When I study how she reflects upon her life in her autobiography or journal in the box, she writes with an repetitive style and elaborates on very few details. Her writings do not display much evidence of episodic memory, which allows a person to plan for potential scenarios in the future by reflecting on the past. Page 11 of this presentation outlined the three components of this type of memory: (1) raw data about the event itself, (2) the emotion experienced, and (3) the meaning extracted.

Like many people in the autism spectrum, Pamela clearly has nailed down one of the three components of this memory (raw data) but does not think it important to encode emotions or attach meaning to the event. Actually, I think she encodes basic emotions and learns from the past. However, she does not process it as fully as typical children because she does not record it in her journal nor share it with us.

I analyzed entries from her journal to understand better how her memory works. Even though she does not truly remember her earliest years, she recorded an average of 9 sentences per year for her first four years of life. That average jumped to 19 sentences per year for her fifth through seventh years, 29 sentences for her eighth through twelfth year, and 43 for her thirteenth through fifteenth year. Pamela kept a journal for a writing class, which seared the idea of tracking memories into her mind. Since then, she has written an average of 201 sentences per year without consulting any journal or other material. She is still writing 2007 up in two separate places, her journal in a box and a journal received from her Aunt Pam for Christmas. The year with the highest number of entries is the year she kept a journal: 293 sentences for one year. However, if she continues to record two or three sentences per day for 2007 in her puppy dog journal, she will eclipse that record!

Pamela found data about her earliest years from pictures, videos, and things we had told her. Her most vivid written memories come from home videos. When she was younger, she enjoyed going through her old homeschooling records and files as another source of raw data to supplement what she remembers. The first authentic memories I can identify as having no record occurred when she was six years old.
  • When we moved to Connecticut, we put some of her videos and toys in a storage locker and made monthly trips to cycle through them.
  • When she turned seven, she broke a couple of videos but did not record her emotions.
  • Her first recorded emotion was getting sick and throwing up at co-op class when she was nine.
  • The next strong emotion was a year later when Steve put some of her videos and toys in boxes in the garage. She wrote, "I was mad." I think this might be linked to earlier memories of storage and breaking videos and could be viewed as episodic memory.
  • Her strongest undocumented memories I can find are weekend trips we took in which we did not take pictures.
  • Even her most recent recorded memories, recorded as a daily record, do not reveal much emotion nor reflection upon the future.
I have been thinking about what Dr. Laura Berk wrote in Awakening Children's Minds about the formation of autobiographical memory in light of Pamela's written memories, "Similarly, several psychological explanations focus on changes in the nature of memory during the preschool years--from an unconscious, automatic, and nonverbal system to one that is conscious, deliberate and verbal" (page 54). Two milestones in coding memory are to have a well-formed sense of self and an autobiographical narrative. By age four, children usually form a sense of self when they know they are the same person though constantly growing and changing in appearance. Children learn to organize their personal experiences into an autobiographical narrative through conversations with adults.

When I compare this research to Pamela, I find something interesting: her strongest emotional memories did not get recorded until she was verbal and had some language. At age seven, she started using echolalic words freely and spontaneously. By nine, she was better able to string two words together, but not in fully formed sentences or great depth. It causes me to wonder if her memories became more deliberate when she had words to process them.

Of course, the prescription for me to help Pamela attach emotion to memory and reflect upon the past and future sounds very much like Charlotte Mason's ideas. The key is for parents to dialog with children in a narrative manner, or elaborative style, by posing many and varied questions, building on children's statements by adding more information, and verbally evaluating events. Charlotte provided wonderful examples of such dialogs in her book, The Formation of Character. In the chapter called Under a Cloud, the mother talks with her young daughter about the sad day they all had because of the girl's moodiness:
"So my poor Agnes has had a very sad day?"

"Yes, mother," with a sob.

"And do you know we have all had a very sad day––father, mother, your little brother, Nurse––every one of us has felt as if a black curtain had been hung up to shut out the sunshine?"

The child was sympathetic, and shivered at the sight of the black curtain and the warm sunshine shut out.

"And do you know who has put us all out in the dark and the cold? Our little girl drew the curtain, because she would not speak to any of us, or be kind to any of us, or love any of us all the day long; so we could not get into the sunshine, and have been shivering and sad in the cold."

"Mother, mother!" with gasping sobs; "not you and father?"

"Ah! I thought my little girl would be sorry. Now let us try to find out how it all happened. Is it possible that Agnes noticed that her brother's pear was larger than her own?"

"Oh, mother, how could I?" The poor little face was hidden in her mother's breast, and the outbreak of sobs that followed was very painful. I feared it might mean actual illness for the sensitive child. I think it was the right thing to do; but I had barely courage enough to leave the results in more loving hands.

"Never mind; don't cry any more, darling, and we will ask 'Our Father' to forgive and forget all about it. Mother knows that her dear little Agnes will try not to love herself best any more. And then the black curtain will never fall, and we shall never again be a whole long day standing sadly out in the cold. Good-night from mother, and another good-night from father."

The treatment seems to answer. On the slightest return of the old sullen symptoms we show our little girl what they mean. The grief that follows is so painful that I'm afraid we could not go on with it for the sake of the child's health; but, happily, we very rarely see a sulky face now; and when we do we turn and look upon our child, and the look melts her into gentleness and penitence.
One technique in RDI is to spotlight the emotions attached with the event, which the mother in this vignette does. She spotlights the sadness of her daughter Agnes as well as the entire family, evaluating how her sullen moods affect the entire family--a revelation to Agnes. She points out the source of the sadness, too. Whenever the sullen moods, they reminded her of the past to help her evaluate how the entire family feels. In time, all the parent needed to do was sadly look at Agnes to melt a sulky face into gentleness.


poohder said...

Excellent post!! Here's the analogy that I have kept in my mind when spotlighting episodic memory and what is going on in their brains. 1) they have a SUPER highway for the 1st part, the raw data. It is wide and smooth and easily traveled upon. Things can come into their brain easily and they can spew all that info forth rather easily 2) a cart path for the 2nd component, the emotion experienced, they can maybe connect happy, mad, sad, because the the path is narrow and overgrown with weeds. 3) there is no path at all or maybe an ant trail, for the third component, the meaning extracted. Without #2,the emotion, their brains have very little
to attach personal meaning to and therefore cannot use it for later to predict, anticipate, change courses or whatever. That is why we as RDI parents must spotlight, highlight,or make stand out the emotional part. Otherwise they will just process new experiences as
just more information(raw data) with little emotion or meaning for future use.
Anyhow, just thought I would share my "road's" version of episodic memory with you. Rhonda

The Glasers said...

Wow, I love that visual image! Did you come up with that? If so, I want to credit you when I use that analogy! That is such a great way to view the three components of episodic memory!

poohder said...

Tammy, I read SO much stuff in the beginning of our RDI journey, but I don't believe I "swiped" it from anyone in particular. I do know I remember hearing or reading about
how brains that myelinate paths/connections well are like a super highways, but I think I added the rest to make the analogy in the brain. To be sure, you may want to say it is a compliation of ideas I borrowed from others. Rhonda

JamBerry said...

Jman still has very little real language, as you know. But since we've been doing RDI, he has on occasion begun to comment and declare his own emotional state at times. Such as a particularly scary ride/movie/event or something, and he will be anxious/upset and will say, on his own, 'scared!' The first time he did it, it blew me away. Now, he may say, 'so, so sad' (a phrase from a story he likes) if someone (like SLY!) does something that is unfair to Jman and upsets him.

I think that his EM is likewise developing with his language, but since he has such language struggles, it's very hard. But I find it interesting that he will sometimes use what little language he has to spotlight or comment to us, in 'extreme' situations, how he is feeling.

Taffy said...

"When I compare this research to Pamela, I find something interesting: her strongest emotional memories did not get recorded until she was verbal and had some language. At age seven, she started using echolalic words freely and spontaneously. By nine, she was better able to string two words together, but not in fully formed sentences or great depth. It causes me to wonder if her memories became more deliberate when she had words to process them."

I liked this whole post and poohder's comment was fabulous - really cleared up things for me. I quoted the above to comment that this part especially struck me. Thanks for writing it.