Working memory is an important brain-based executive function skill.
Working memory has been compared to the brain's Post-It note-- it allows you to hold onto information for 10 or 15 seconds and then do something with that information.
Children with low working memory will walk up stairs to do something for you, and halfway up, they forget that they agreed to bring their laundry down to you. Several minutes later you go upstairs to find them watching YouTube videos happily at their desk.
Students with working memory problem can have a lot of difficulty. If the teacher asks them to copy the homework off the board, by the time they read the sentence from the board and then refer back to their notebook, they've forgotten what they just read. It can take them a very long time to do a task that other students can do very quickly.
Some students will show good working memory ability when they are tested as part of a psycho-educational assessment. However, their actions seem to indicate otherwise, as they never seem to be able to hold in their mind what they were just told. They understand the math when it's taught, but seconds later when they have to get to work and do the questions in their book, they cannot remember what was just taught.
Also common: as they're leaving class, the teacher says, 'Don't forget to bring in your money for your trip tomorrow!", and they want to remember that long enough to tell Mom outside at the car, but by the time they get out the door of the school, it's gone. Forgotten. In seconds.
One of the reasons for working memory challenges like this can be anxiety. When we are anxious, it is very difficult to access any of our executive function skills-- including working memory.
When autistic children are very anxious, (which, with autistic children, may be all the time they are at school), their 'thinking brain'-- the frontal lobe, is no longer in charge.Their emotional brain is the boss. Why is this?
Neuroscience. We simply cannot access our executive function skills when we are overwhelmed with any kind of emotion. Anxiety sends stress hormones coursing through the veins and our children are in survival mode... fight, flight, or freeze mode. They can exist in constant inner turmoil, simply trying to survive environments and curriculums that are poorly matched with their skills and their ability to cope.
For children whose working memory is impaired day-to-day basis because of the anxiety caused by unreasonable demands, the solution, then, is simple: make sure that our expectations are aligned with their understanding and their their skills.
For children who have low working memory even in ideal settings, there are number of accommodations that can support this area of need. Providing visuals, chunking work, and reducing distractions can all be very helpful. The supports and accommodations are as individual as our children. What's important and what is universal is that every one of our children needs to get what they need to do well.
If my memory serves me well, our legislation guarantees that every child will get what they need in order to learn the curriculum. Day in and day out, year in and year out, parents of children on the spectrum are forced to put that to the test.