Recalling specific past experiences is critical for most formal social interactions, including when being interviewed for employment, as a witness or defendant in the criminal justice system, or as a patient during a clinical consultation. Such interviews can be difficult for autistic adults under standard open questioning, yet applied research into effective methods to facilitate autistic adults’ recall is only recently beginning to emerge. The current study tested the efficacy of different prompting techniques to support autistic adults’ recall of specific personal memories; 30 autistic and 30 typically developing adults (intelligence quotients > 85) were asked to recall specific instances from their past, relevant to criminal justice system, healthcare, and employment interviews. Questions comprised ‘open questions’, ‘semantic prompting’ (where semantic knowledge was used to prompt specific episodic retrieval) and ‘visual–verbal prompting’ (a pie-diagram with prompts to recall specific details, for example, who, what, and where). Half the participants received the questions in advance. Consistent with previous research, autistic participants reported memories with reduced specificity. For both groups, visual–verbal prompting support improved specificity and episodic relevance, while semantic prompting also aided recall for employment questions (but not health or criminal justice system). Findings offer new practical insight for interviewers to facilitate communication with typically developing and autistic adults.
During many types of interviews (e.g. in employment, with the police, and in healthcare), we need to recall detailed memories of specific events, which can be difficult for autistic people in response to commonly used questions. This is especially because these tend to be open questions (i.e. very broad). Autistic people have disproportionately high rates of physical and mental health conditions, are more likely to interact with police, and are the most underemployed disability group. However, interviewers are often unsure about how to adapt their communication for autistic people.
Our research tested whether different types of prompts enabled autistic people to recall specific memories (memories of a single event within one day). Participants were asked about situations relating to witnessing a crime (e.g. at the bank), physical or mental health scenarios and employment interviews (e.g. a time you’ve met a deadline).
We tested the following:
- Open questions: basic questions only (e.g. ‘tell me about a time you went to the cinema’),
- Semantic prompting: a general prompt (e.g. ‘do you enjoy going to the cinema?’) before asking for a specific instance (‘tell me about a time you went to the cinema?’),
- Visual–verbal prompting: asking participants to recall when it happened, who was there, the actions that occurred, the setting, and any objects.
With visual–verbal prompting, autistic and typically developing participants’ memories were more specific and detailed. Semantic prompting was also effective for employment questions. Our study shows that autistic people can recall specific memories when they are appropriately prompted. Visual–verbal prompting may be effective across different situations.