Sharing Memories

How was your day today?  What did you do?

Many children with language limitations, including autism, cannot answer these questions.  Their ability to share memories with their parents can be extremely limited, and thus they appear to be tied to the here and now.  What do you do if your child can’t share his memories with you?

Why is Sharing Memories So Hard?

Before we talk about what we can do to help your child share his memories, we need to stop for a couple of minutes to talk a smidge about child development.  It’s a little academic, so if you truly can’t take it, I give you permission to skip ahead…but I hope you don’t!

The first hurdle holding many of our ASD kiddos back from sharing their memories is their expressive language ability, pure and simple.  When you don’t have the words to match the images in your mind, you can’t express them.  And even when you have the words, stringing them together to tell a story can be challenging.

The second obstacle to sharing memories is that, even once the expressive language develops, the child’s pragmatic development may not have reached this level yet.  Pragmatic language isn’t what we are saying; it is why we are saying it. Unfortunately, the ability to share memories is a later developing pragmatic skill; it comes only after children are able to express their basic wants and needs and after they have joint attention skills at the level of commenting (sharing information in the here and now).

The ultimate goal is for us to develop the pragmatic language ability called Discussing a Non-Present (DNP).  Discussing the Non-Present is the ability to talk about something that is not happening right now, and has nothing in the present environment to remind you of it.  This is the equivalent of you returning home from a vacation and having water cooler chat with your co-workers about your adventures WITHOUT showing them any pictures. To be able to do this, you have to be able to hold an image from the past in your mind, describe it, and weave it into a coherent story. This is an incredibly difficult task for a child with autism, or any language limitations for that matter.

So how do we get there?

Developmentally speaking, Discussing a Related Present (DRP) is the bridge between discussing the here and now to the “not here-not now.”*  Discussing a related present is talking about an event that happened in the past, but with something from that event in your presence.  This is telling about your trip with your snapshots in front of you, or holding a fossil in your hand and talking about the trip you found it on, or holding a piece of art you made and talking about your art class.  In DRP, you have something in the present that is related to the event that happened in the non-present.

What Can We Do?  Parent Project!

One of my favorite strategies for helping young children share their memories (DRP) is to make a brief photo book of an activity or event that we shared together.  In the digital era we live in, making a simple photo book has never been easier.  This is where your homework comes in!  Have you been taking pictures like I asked you to?  (wink, wink)

Here’s how to do it:

1)   Take pictures of “steps” or mini-events within a larger event.  Choose things that your child was interested in or stimulated by.

2)   Insert the digital pictures into a Word (or other word processing program) document, one picture per page. {In Word, you go to the Insert tab, choose Photo, and then select your photo file.  Easy as pie}

3)   Beneath each picture, write simple language (at your child’s developmental language level) telling about that event or step in your trip or activity.  Be sure to use words from their core vocabulary, use simple sentence structure, and keep your sentence length down to reduce the language load. I use 3-5 words per sentence as a rule of thumb for emerging memory sharers.  Remember that sharing memories is a new skill for your child, which makes it more difficult; keep everything else as easy as possible.

4)   If your child is able to look at the picture on your computer and talk about it, help them to participate in telling you what to write.

5)   Use Boardmaker or some other picture symbol processing program to “translate” your simple language into pictures in your child’s core vocabulary.  Copy and paste these picture symbol sentences into your Word document.  {Select the symbols.  Select copy. Move to your Word document.  Select paste.}

6)   Print it out!

For Example:

Click below for my little project, a book based on a recent trip to the Texas State Aquarium that I took with my family:

My Trip to the Aquarium book

Read it together!

Once you are finished, bring the book to your child and read it together.  This is your shared book about your shared experience, so be sure to allow them the opportunity to share in reading it (don’t just read it TO them).  As you are reading, speak slowly.  Pause between pages.  Give them the time to think, remember, and possibly formulate a response.  Someone told me once that for a child with autism, there can be a 15 second delay in processing time (comprehend, process, formulate response, activate motor plan for speech) between when you stop talking and when they start talking.  Allow at least that much time between sentences and pages.  It doesn’t sound like long but it feels like forever.

Share Your Book with Others

You can also use your book to help your child share his experience of an event with a parent or friend who was not there.  When my oldest was young, and I was young and ambitious, I used to do one of these books with my son on the afternoon of any big morning outing.  I distinctly remember watching the first time my son used one of our books to tell his dad about a trip to the zoo we had made that day.  I still remember the look of joy on both of their faces.  They were truly sharing a moment.

Sharing Memories Connects Us

We know that children with autism have memories—they show us all the time–but it’s not only the making of memories that matters.  We work on DRP not just because it’s a developmental skill or milestone; we do it because sharing memories connects us.   Sharing memories allows us to know what is in someone else’s mind–and sometimes heart.  Sharing memories bonds us together.

Have fun sharing your memories!


The research base of this post comes from Ninio & Snow, 1996; Rollins & Snow, 1998; Rollins, 2014;  and years of research by Wetherby & Prizant.

McFarlin, Rollins, Trautman, and Kerr, Chapter 5 of Facilitating Social Communication: From Theory to Practice  (in press), contains further applications of these developmental principles.





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