11 Ways To Strengthen Memory In A Child With Special Needs

Special Needs Memory Loss

Most people don’t think about the process of remembering until they experience memory loss.

But what if the ability to hold and retrieve memories was never there?

How do you live life like that?

How do you learn?

Deficits in short-term memory, long-term memory and memory retrieval are common with neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, autism, cognitive impairment and learning disabilities.  No two brains are exactly alike, so medical studies have had inconsistent results in identifying memory patterns across these conditions.

My son often doesn’t remember things that happened 5 minutes ago – but I know the memory is in there.  He just needs help pulling it out.  Sometimes complex ideas, such as a subtle social interaction, or abstract ideas, such as a scientific theory, never get deposited in his memory.  He does pretty well with visual memory, but he is unable to organize it, so he can’t always connect what he saw with specific events, places or people.

It’s my job to get into his head and show him how to sort it all out.  These are the 11 most useful methods that I’ve found to teach my son how to remember.

Human Memory

Types of Human Memory: Diagram by Luke Mastin

1. Use Procedural Memory Whenever Possible

The Mayo Clinic developed a memory training program, HABIT, for individuals with cognitive impairment or memory loss.  The cornerstone of this program is the use of procedural memory, a type of long-term memory that helps people remember how to do each step of a process.  In most cases, procedural memory is more reliable than short-term memory or memories that include emotions.

In my home, I’ve applied this idea to teach my son everything from long division and reading comprehension to self-care and chores.  Instead of introducing these tasks as concepts, I model each step and increase his level of participation until he is able to do it independently.  For example, he usually does not understand what he is reading, but he knows that he can take a list of questions and go back through a text to find the answers.  And even though he may not understand a math problem at first, he can line up the numbers and work out the correct answer, then go back to the problem and apply that answer to the original question.

2. Make A Schedule

A schedule with words, symbols or pictures is an easy way to develop procedural memory for people of all ages.  Daily habits and journaling can compensate for many types of memory impairments.

3. Take Lots of Photos

Episodic memory is the feeling of remembering one’s own personal history.  This type of memory is what allows us to learn from past experience and predict future events.  Most people do not fully develop this sense of “autobiography” until they are at least 5 years old – but with a neurological condition, it takes much longer.

In my family, we take lots and lots of photos to document our autobiographies.  I photograph special occasions and everyday occurrences, happy and sad.  We name people, places, dates and events.  We turn them into greeting cards and theme-based scrapbooks such as “Nature Walks 2010-2012” and “Roller Coasters 2005-2011.”  Now my son takes an artistic interest in his summer photo project every year.

4. Exercise

Vigorous daily exercise has been demonstrated repeatedly in published medical studies to improve cognitive function and memory.  At home we try to incorporate cross-lateral exercise into our daily routine to strengthen connections between the left and right sides of the brain.  Get moving this year with yoga, Brain Gym, Bal-A-Vis-X, swimming and bicycling.

5. Relax

The stress hormone cortisol is known to alter memories, so relaxation is an important component to maintaining the integrity of memory.  Meditation and regular spiritual practice are excellent tools for supporting cognitive wellness.

6. Vitamins

Some types of nutrient deficiencies may contribute to memory loss.  After consulting with my son’s pediatrician, I started giving him vitamin B-12 and the antioxidant coenzyme Q10.  Other nutritional supplements that may help with memory are omega-3 fatty acids and the antioxidants beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E.

7. Sensory Input

To understand what my son is thinking, I often follow his eyes so that I can see what he is seeing, and I watch his face for reactions to changes in the sensory environment.  I’ve noticed that sounds, smells, colors and textures can cause a forgotten memory to rise to the surface of his mind.  A few bars of a song will remind of the last time he heard that music, and a smell will remind him of another place with that same smell.  He is much more likely to remember something that has a sensory experience attached to it.

8. Creative Output

Having a creative outlet such as writing, photography, painting, sculpture, woodworking or jewelry making tends to reduce stress and increase memory retrieval.  Make creativity part of the daily routine!

9. Repetition Through Stories

For many years, I’ve used stories to help my son process events.  I ask him to state both facts and emotions in each story – he has a thick collection of stories now.  He reads and re-reads, writes and re-writes each one.

During his winter break, he kept a list of what we did on each day of vacation, then he wrote about one event for his English class at school: “We went to the science museum.  We saw a dinosaur and a woolly mammoth.  I liked the ball exhibit best.  Mom got a headache from the noise and lights, so we went home.”

10. Keep It Simple

Simple concepts are much easier to remember than complex concepts.  Break down large ideas into smaller chunks that can be stored in long-term memory.

11. Make It A Game

Memory games and exercises have been around for centuries because they really work.  A game does not have to be complicated or expensive – it can be as simple as a treasure hunt or I Spy at home – but it should always be fun!

Karen Wang

Written on 2013/03/21 by:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"