I Mask with Declarative Memory

I have a rad memory.

As a child, I used to play card games that relied on memory. I also appreciated RPGs that immersed me into enormous fantasy worlds, facts and characters and events, because that meant I could stretch my memory’s arms by learning it all.

But I didn’t like public school.

It was a social-emotional thing.

I’m not sure if anyone picked up on my obsession to learn, since institutions of learning were unsafe. It probably looked like I was a C-quality student who was obsessed with “rotting my brain” on JRPGs.

College, on the other hand, felt like returning to the video game store. I chose a specific subject, immersed myself into its enormous academic world, facts and concepts and ideas—then I learned it all.

Except this time, my learning felt more applicable to the world around me.

I also dug a grave of debt. Oops to that.

I’m a college professor now. As an adjunct, I only have to teach face-to-face for a couple hours a day. This is great, since I require more time at home than most people.

I also get to continue to learn.

Teaching is as effective a way to approach nearer to the heart of the matter. At the advanced stage of an academic subject—post masters degree, when you can lead undergraduate discussions at your community college—much of the growth comes from practice and repetition. I’m beyond the midpoint of knowledge, where I’ve accepted I’ve never learned anything completely, and I crave true mastery.

I have very intelligent students who ask amazing questions and do amazing things.

That may also be why teaching feels like learning—it’s still college-level.

The reading and writing skills I teach my undergraduates feel old to me, honed and perfected—academically useful; easy to test—yet as students meet the course standards, they also interpret the subject matter, writing prompts, and craft lessons in truly novel ways.

For instance, a few semesters ago, one of my students took my lecture on commas and flow to heart, producing a Cormac McCarthy style essay where punctuation was almost exclusively reserved to the period.

Since the essay was shorter, it didn’t feel as exhausting to read a barrage of comma-free sentences as, say, an end-term research paper. Instead it felt like a pleasant rollercoaster.

I dug seeing that kind of pacing in academic writing. Rarely do I learn a new writing maneuver, yet I’m still delighted by new discoveries, stretching my memory’s arms further.

In grade school, one of my greatest fears was running out of memory. What if this memorization superpower had limits, walls?—I could live with depreciating returns, but if the act of stretching my memory came to an end, what would I do?

You could see how, in my adulthood, this fear has morphed into dread of Alzheimer’s.

You could also see how gaslighting would exceptionally wound me.

I struggle with memorizing names and faces.

As a teacher, I learn about my students through their writing, understanding their word choices, their beliefs—their voices as they submit more and more pages.

I think this means my personal connections in the classroom aren’t as strong as other teachers, at least in the beginning—though I do my best to make up for this by treating each student with kindness—yet when it’s time to evaluate their writing, that helper/tutor relationship is wholly established.

Developmental prosopagnosia is a developmental disorder that leads to face-recognition deficits. It starts in early childhood, and it’s lifelong. Autistic people are at a higher risk for also developing this disorder.

By the end of the course, I’ve read 6,000-10,000 words from each of them, and let me tell you, these are some classy human beings. They restore my hope in the future.

And wouldn’t you want your English teacher to know your writing more than you?

Isn’t that the professional arrangement we’ve agreed upon, anyway?

Today, when I read an article on SpectrumNews.org about declarative memory in autistic people, my memory issues—and incredible memory powers—made more sense.

Since declarative memory is used when reading, that’s why I’d rely on writing assignments when connecting with my students—to make up for how my name-and-face-center doesn’t work. It’s all part of masking my autism. It’s all part of adapting.

But what if the declarative memory is the powerhouse for all my masking behaviors?

Masking is when an autistic person masquerades as an allistic person, and it’s considered one of the reasons depression and anxiety is so high in autistic people.

While allistic privilege sounds something like “everyone has to pretend they’re someone they’re not to make it by in this world,” autistic people wear masks whenever they’re not in their house—sometimes, even at home—and this is an incredible social-emotional burden. Burnout and exhaustion are inevitable.

Now combine that with a developmental disorder that results in social awkwardness at best, and serious social deficits at worse.

Layer that with a few traumatic experiences.

Boom.

According to the article, autistic people use formulaic speech, or “stock phrases to help them interact with others in social contexts,” as a way of bypassing social problems with declarative memory skills.

Yep. I do that.

The article also claims autistic people with specific language impairments (SLI) will “memorize phrases to help compensate for their difficulties with grammar.”

I write in phrases, copyedit in phrases, and teach with phrases.

What I mean to say is, I’ve found it immensely more useful to teach students how to control flow, convey meaning, and connect ideas together—the three polishes needed to buff essays to college-level quality—by focusing on phrases, rather than broad-scale (paragraphs) or micro-scale fixes (word choice and grammar).

I also found it better, when I was a copyeditor and localization editor, to think about what would improve chunks of content. Phrases. Clauses.

Have I been communicating this way, this whole time?

It would explain some of my common first-draft errors, too.

As the article progresses, it explores interesting concepts like:

  • declarative memory may determine how severely autism affects the individual
  • therapies that rely on declarative memory may benefit some autistic people
  • drugs that improve declarative memory, like acetylcholinesterase inhibitors or memantine, may help alleviate autism’s symptoms

Then comes the interesting part. They acknowledge that declarative memory is stronger in women; and they also note that women are underdiagnosed. So they believe, by reworking diagnostics to target areas that can’t be as easily masked with declarative memory, they’ll screen for autism earlier in girls.

Declarative memory isn’t just used to mask autism, either. It can help make up for deficits brought on by ADHD, Parkinson’s disease and aphasia. So having diagnostic methods that can look beyond memory-masked symptoms is a crucial next step for a considerable part of our population.

Read the article here.

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