Thursday, November 18, 2010

Understanding a different mind: memory organization and receptive language

As my oldest son moves into his adolescence, his mind continues to change. Observing him, I get new insights into how his mind works.

He has a pen pal now, a young woman who is studying special education. She started writing him as part of a school program, and has continued on. She is a wonderful correspondent.

My young adolescent tells her stories to impress her. They aren't, however, true stories.

They are generally plausible stories, no more or less impressive than the things he actually does. Often they are things he has done, just not things he has done recently. On the other hand, he omits adventures that I, in his place, would certainly include.

I think he's dissembling a bit, but mostly I think he doesn't really remember what happened yesterday. He may remember it in detail six months from now, but at the moment it's lost to him. So, like an Alzheimer's patient, he fills in the gaps. He tells a story.

His memory dysfunction is a profound handicap all by itself.

His inability to process speech is probably related to this memory dysfunction. It's not usually obvious to anyone, even to us, but he struggles to process  even relatively simple sentences. He will often react negatively to a request, but, if he's given a minute or two to think about it, he will usually reverse himself. I think he needs time to try to reconstruct the sentence, to understand its meaning.

Curiously, as his reading slowly improves, largely due to his email and texting, his written communication is becoming stronger than his verbal communication. He understands ideas that are written as words better than the same ideas spoken aloud. He can read and reread printed text, gradually building understanding and reinforcing his limited short term memory. Spoken words are hard to reprocess.

He has other disabilities, but also some useful strengths. He's quite good with his iPhone, and with software and devices of every variety. Already his calendar, which I can edit from my desktop, is turning into a history of what he has done as well as what he is going to do. He takes hundreds of pictures of construction vehicles (an obsession), but in time the phone photo library will become a history of things he has done, places he has been. We often discuss things by text message; I think he finds that easier than spoken communication.

The phone record, including a record of where he and his phone are, may have other value as he gets older. Many cases of false imprisonment seem to involve people like him, people with such disordered memories that they can choose guilt for any crime. His prosthetic phone memory may protect him.

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