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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

11 Ways To Strengthen Memory In A Child With Special Needs

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!

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Karen Wang

Written on March 21, 2013 by:

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"
  • Susan Stibb

    Thank-you for the resources to work on. For my son who has epilepsy I find this can be very helpful.
    I try to work with him…in the meantime, keeping his seizures at bay. Because when he goes through them. His memory takes 3 steps back.

  • Love Many Trust Few

    This information is incredibly helpful! It’s been shared and shared in my network down here in Australia. Beautiful work Karen! Thank you

  • karlicious

    This is good stuff!

  • http://spreadingtheword4specia

    These are all such great ideas! I volunteered in a post-secondary special needs classroom this past week and most of the students have traumatic brain injuries and remembering was definitely one of their biggest challenges! We played memory games and had “test” where the teachers asked questions about the presentations that took place a few days before and by working together they remembered most of the information. I’ll definitely have to pass this along to the teacher! Thanks for sharing!

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  • mfrye7

    I plan to implement these with my son that has autism and asperger-related symptoms. Great idea! I also facilitate the “I AM Special” weekly motivational teleconference. One of the weekly segments deals with Personal Development. I would love to present these one Sunday or better yet would love for you to be the presenter. Thanks

  • Laura

    I was a certified Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) consultant for four years. I am taking a break now to get my MSW. I wanted to share that building episodic memory in people with autism is a big part of an RDI program. Episodic memory capacity is critical for relationship building and creative problem solving. Dr. Steven Gutstein who developed the RDI program has followed the research in this area for many years and incorporated this memory building component into the program since its inception in 2000. Using photos is only one of the strategies employed. The RDI website is for anyone interested.

  • Fumbing Thru Autism

    Memory games on the iPad…it took my daughter, who has autism, trying iPad memory games for a few months and now she is a whiz at them. We extended it to real memory games.

  • Leslie Weimer

    I take a focus pill to help to improved my memory and focus on a task. my daughter who is autism is a very vision learning. just try to get a garber snack open the first she saw mommy open it.

    • Tim Gilbert

      What do you mean by focus pill?

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  • Pamela

    Thank you very much, Karen, for these wonderful methods! Have tried to find out more about HABIT memory training with procedural memory being the cornerstone – but to no avail! Could you please give more resources for this procedural memory method for us to implement? Thank you very much! Pamela

    • Karen

      Looks like the Mayo Clinic changed the link for the HABIT program! Here’s a link to the brochure for HABIT (which stands for Healthy Action to Benefit Independence and Thinking), which has contact information at the clinic:

  • Henry o neil

    I think it is more easy to remember something that has some events associated with it.Personally I feel people do remember sweeter memories longer as they tend to remember it.

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  • Want to let you know that I pinned your great info-graphic on memory types to my ADD/EFD Assists board (which leads here, of course). Wonderful article too – not just for kids! ANYONE struggling with memory deficits can improve functionality using techniques like the ones you cite.

    I have I also back-linked this article as Related Content to “Forgetting and Remembering” on ADD . . . and-So-Much-MORE (Evergreen blog, so I update links and content from time to time). As I continue with this particular Series I’ll probably link here again. If you have pings enabled, you’ll know when they go live.

    Please take a moment to go take a look, and feel free to engage in dialogue with any of my posts you find “related” to what YOU do, whether you agree, disagree, or have points to add.

    (You might also be interested in the Sleep Series articles listed in the “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sleep” Linklist and/or the first re: Sensory Defensiveness – which covers more than the title suggests: “Sound Sensitivity and Sensory Integration”). Use the on-site search box or jump over from Pinterest.

    You are invited to leave a link to anything else you have written in the comments section of any related article you happen upon (one “live link” per comment or you’ll be auto-spammed and I won’t see TO approve). 
Links back always appreciated, of course. (Non-commercial site, btw, even tho’ I do make my living as an ADD Coach and trainer.)

(Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  • PS. It sounds like you are a WONDERFUL mother, Karen – God definitely placed your son in the right home – there must be something really important lined up for his future.
    xx, mgh

    • Karen Wang

      Thanks, Madelyn! We know that children and adults with memory impairments can learn, and they do make valuable contributions to the world!

      The infographic is credited to Luke Mastin, not to me.

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  • Marie Whinney

    Hi , I am grandmother to 6 year old Ty, who is being diagnosed with reading / memory/motor function disabilities , but has not yet had any help from the NHS, but the school is being brilliant.I am distraught and floundering as how to help him best .His short term memory is almost non existent , he loves to swim/ go walking /loves the woods and animals . Knows the names of all the dinosaurs /animals and recognizes them .You cannot give him more than one instruction at a time as he is unable to process more than one thing at a time . He is an extremely happy child …his parents have split up and his father thinks there is nothing wrong with him, his mum , my daughter,tries , but like me she is finding it very hard. Ay help or advice would be so greatly appreciated …Marie

  • Lisa General

    Thank you.


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