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Do measures of memory, language, and attention predict eyewitness memory in children with and without autism?

Henry, L., Messer, D. J., Wilcock, R. , Nash, G., Kirke-Smith, M., Hobson, Z. & Crane, L. (2017). Do measures of memory, language, and attention predict eyewitness memory in children with and without autism?. Autism and Developmental Language Impairments, 2, pp. 1-17. doi: 10.1177/2396941517722139


Background & aims. There are few investigations of the relationship between cognitive abilities (memory, language and attention) and children’s eyewitness performance in typically developing children (TD), and even fewer in children on the autism spectrum. Such investigations are important to identify key cognitive processes underlying eyewitness recall, and assess how predictive such measures are compared to non-verbal IQ, diagnostic group status (autism or TD) and age.

Methods. A total of 272 children (162 boys; 110 girls) of age 76 months to 142 months (M = 105 months) took part in this investigation: 71 children with autism and 201 TD children. The children saw a staged event involving a minor mock crime and were asked about what they had witnessed in an immediate Brief Interview. This focused on free recall, included a small number of open-ended questions, and was designed to resemble an initial evidence gathering statement taken by police officers arriving at a crime scene. Children were also given standardised tests of intelligence, memory, language and attention.

Results & conclusions. Despite the autism group recalling significantly fewer items of correct information than the TD group at Brief Interview, both groups were equally accurate in their recall: 89% of details recalled by the TD group and 87% of the details recalled by the autism group were correct. To explore the relationship between Brief Interview performance and the cognitive variables, alongside age, diagnostic group status and non-verbal IQ, multiple hierarchical regression analyses were conducted, with Brief Interview performance as the dependant variable. Age and diagnostic group status were significant predictors of correct recall, whereas non-verbal IQ was less important. After age, non-verbal IQ and diagnostic group status had been accounted for, the only cognitive variables that were significant predictors of Brief Interview performance were measures of memory (specifically, memory for faces and memory for stories). There was little evidence of there being differences between the autism and TD groups in the way the cognitive variables predicted the Brief Interview.

Implications. The findings provide reassurance that age – the most straightforward information to which all relevant criminal justice professionals have access – provides a helpful indication of eyewitness performance. The accuracy of prediction can be improved by knowing the child’s diagnostic status (i.e., whether the child is on the autism spectrum), and further still by using more specific assessments (namely memory for faces and memory for stories), possibly via the input of a trained professional. Importantly, the findings also confirm that whilst children with autism may recall less information than TD children, the information they do recall is just as accurate.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License ( which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (
Publisher Keywords: eyewitness, interviews, autism, memory, language, attention
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
R Medicine > RJ Pediatrics
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Language & Communication Science
Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

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