A Critique of
Verbal Working Memory and Story Retelling in
School-Age Children with Autism (Gabig, 2008).
by Robyn Wood
A Brief Summary
Cheryl Smith Gabig
Ph. D. in speech pathology
Purpose of research:
examines the verbal working memory (VWM) and language ability in schoolaged children with autism
compares the VWM of school aged children with autism with those of typically
developing children (TD)
Sample group: 15 autistic children and 10 (TD) age-matched children.
Used 3 measures of verbal working memory with increasing levels of
Measured story retelling
Links to this paper
. global developmental problem of the brain including Broca’s &
- role of working memory and the central executive
Theoretical models of Verbal Working Memory
Theory of Mind*
Reading and comprehension
Findings of this Research
Showed working memory deficits
Performed significantly lower in VWM tasks
Performed within a hierarchy of VWM tasks
Showed receptive vocabulary* was strongly associated to sentence
imitation - suggesting processing & recall relate to stored vocabulary
knowledge. This does not apply to TD group.
Have an inferior working memory capacity for complex verbal tasks
Findings of this Research Contd.
Lack of performance is:
• best supported by the Connectionist theory of verbal working memory*
(MacDonald & Christiansen, 2002 as cited in Gabig, 2008, p500)
- I.e. memory deficit influenced by:
- complexity of language input
- complexity and interaction of biological network (nodes)
• may be attributed to lack of theory of mind (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Firth,
Critical Review of this Research
• research valuable to teachers
• difficult to understand
. methodology assumed prior knowledge
. terms not always defined
• results relevant to the language processing tasks used in classes with
• builds on prior research
• logical argument assumes
. story retelling requires greater language processing demands
. autistic children will struggle
• Main arguments supported
e.g. - poor performance links to Premack & Woodruff ‘s (1978) Theory of
Mind’ as cited in Gabig’s 2008, p. 508)
- failure to meet processing demands lowers achievements
Gathercole & Alloway (2007)
Critical Review Contd….
• Limitations to design are acknowledged
• Further research suggested
• Impact of research hinted at, however implementation for classroom
practice isn’t clearly stated
• Having a 50% smaller TD group - does this affect the results?
• Mix of type of school attended. Despite consistency of language input in
methodology, does the inconsistency of school experiences skew the
results in light of the connectionist theory?
• There is a “high degree of variability in the clinical manifestations of …
[autism] especially within the communication and language domains” (p. 498)
- could this variance apply to the 15 autistic children?
• If sentence comprehension was measured, would the results differ?
• Appropriateness of non-word stimuli given autistic children are literal?
• The role of attention and it’s impact on the results (some of the autistic children
refocusing during task completion)
• Despite the critical questions above, I believe Gabig’s conclusions are
Practical Implications for Classrooms with Autistic Children
Monitor the types of tasks given
Use social stories
Ascertain levels of existing language knowledge and work with this
Harness strengths (e.g. lower verbal working memory hierarchy tasks)
Develop programs that build experiences and vocabulary
Limit use of story recall
Baron-Cohen, S. Leslie, A.M., Firth, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of
mind’? Cognition, 21, 37- 46
Gabig, C. S. (2008). Verbal working memory and story retelling in school-age children
with autism. Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools, 39(4) 498-510.
Gathercole, Prof S. E. & Packiam Alloway, Dr T. (2007). Understanding working
memory. A classroom guide. London WC1V6EU: Harbour Assessment.