Visual Thinking on the Autism Spectrum
April is Autism Awareness month – so it seems like a good time to talk about the connection between autism and visual learners- especially because the link is really significant and profoundly affects the effectiveness of their communication and learning.
Temple Grandin is a woman with autism. She is also a visual thinker, a scientist, engineer and inventor. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and a masters and doctoral in animal science; she considers her ability to see in pictures a tremendous advantage as an equipment designer in the livestock industry. “Every design problem I ever solved started with my ability to visualize and see the world in pictures.”
Temple is also an author and speaker, sharing her own experience growing up with autism. Her insights have had a profound effect on our understanding of what it means to be autistic. Her book; Thinking in Pictures, My Life with Autism; was made into a HBO movie; Temple Grandin, in 2010. If you haven’t seen it yet – please do. The movie shows the viewer what it’s like to see through the eyes of a visual thinker!! I am a visual thinker and stunned to see it portrayed on film the way it is.
Through Temple’s writings and speaking she shares: “One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills.” Temple goes on to outline three categories of autistic thinkers:
“Visual thinkers, like me, think in photographically specific images. There are degrees of specificity in visual thinking. I can test run a machine in my head with full motion. Interviews with non-autistic, visual thinkers indicated that they can only visualize still images.
“Music and Math thinkers think in patterns. These people excel in math, chess and computer programming. Some of these individuals explained to me that they see patterns and relationships between patterns and numbers instead of photographic images. Written language is not required for pattern thinking.
“Verbal logic thinkers think in word details. They often love history, foreign languages, weather statistics, and stock market reports. They are not visual thinkers and are often poor at drawing. Children with speech delays are more likely to become visual or music math thinkers.”
While the majority of people with autism are visual thinkers, there is one very significant difference between them and other visual thinkers. Visual people are big picture, conceptual thinkers that often miss details. But autistic visuals are much more focused on details and lack the ability to see the big picture. They are very literal, detail oriented, linear thinkers. This combination of abilities is very unique and can be developed by understanding what kind of instruction is most effective.
Many of the teaching strategies that work for visual kids also work well for autistic learners. They need instruction that is highly visual, hands-on and less language-focused. But they also need a structured, predictable learning process that includes carefully segmented and ordered steps. I will go into more detail about effective strategies in a later post. Meanwhile, take a look at some of my previous posts about autism to get some more ideas.
Here are more of my blog posts about children and Autism:
Learning Styles: Temple Grandin and Autism
Teaching Math without Words: A Visual Approach to Learning Math through Software