Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Common Modes of Thought; its broader than thinking in pictures


Systems, by Donna Williams Fellow author, Temple Grandin, wrote and lectured much on ‘thinking in pictures’, imagining that, because a majority of high functioning people with Asperger’s did think in pictures (though many were auditory thinkers who thought in words) that, therefore, this was indicative of how ALL people with autism thought. On this basis she claimed that as ‘the woman who thinks like a cow’ that not only all autistic people think in pictures, but went further to project this predominant visual thinking style onto animals too. In fact visual thinking is the most common mode of thought for ALL people – around 60 %-65% of the population think in pictures. So how about the rest of us?

The second most common thinking style is verbal thinking, which Temple Grandin presumed was a non-autistic thing, as she didn’t do it. In fact, thinking in words is only half as common in the general population as thinking in pictures. Around 20%30% of the general population think in words.
Kinesthetic thinkers learn through DOING. They often struggle to sit still when made to watch or listen so are more liable than most to be labeled with ADD or ADHD, become failed students or have a lower IQ score if testing is based on visual or verbal processing. Kinesthetic learners may not know what they think or want to do until they start doing something. They are natural discovery learners and learn through their bodies and their hands. Only 10%-15% of the general population are kinesthetic learners and I’m one of them.

As a kinesthetic thinker who learns through DOING and thinks in movement, and someone with marked impairments in both visual and auditory thinking and learning, I wrote an article, ‘Not Thinking In Pictures’ to draw attention to the damaging effects of such new stereotypes which would promote that people who processed like me, should be taught via a medium which would fail us and have us judged by that failing.

I was glad to see that Temple has since retracted this assumption in her ‘revised edition’ of ‘Thinking In Pictures’. But her recent expansion from believing there are only two main forms of thinking; (auditory which she ascribed to non-autistic people and visual which she ascribed to people on the autistic spectrum) to a mere three (which now include musical and mathematical thinkers), still leaves out a remarkable minority and one which may shed much on those who are last to gain functional language because of the very nature of how they think and learn.

If only she could grasp my thinking style (sure, a mere 10%-15% of the population but still very existent people) and imagine my style of ‘an anthropologist on mars‘ (after all if her visual thinking supposedly makes her that, what are we kinesthetic learners? Are we anthropologists on Pluto?).
In a recent 9 stop tour I surveyed my audiences of 200-300 at each lecture about their own predominant thinking styles. Those present were largely non-autistic people. I asked them to put up their hands if they thought in and learned primarily via words. Around 50% of each audience put their hands up. I asked then how many thought in and learned via images, thought in pictures or would describe themselves as picture thinkers. Around 50% of the hands went up. I asked how many people felt they fitted neither. Only 1-5 hands would go up in each audience. I also asked the visual thinkers how many were somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
There were those who thought in music for whom experiences, moods and thoughts triggered music and songs and who learned best when they sang something, put it to music or were sung to or heard a story through rhyme. There were those who think in systems and structures, pure relationship links with no words or pictures to them, a purely structuralist type of thought, people thinking purely in systems.

Beyond this though, there were those who thought in color associations, almost emotional-thought, social thought, directly linked to representational colors; red moods, green days, yellow people, moments where the mood-colors clashed, blue-green conversations. There were those who thought purely in emotional flow and what shut them down or opened them up as though emotion itself were a kind of musical language for them, without the music itself. There were those who thought in movement and the changing feeling of space, for who the world did not exist unless their body experienced it and visual things had little or no meaning until they touched or handled them.

Visual thinkers and auditory thinkers live in their heads, in a meta reality. These may well be the one’s who most quickly learn language and Temple Grandin, herself, gives examples of poorly articulated speech at age two, trying to say ‘ball’ but managing only ‘bah’. By age three, with the help of speech therapy, she mastered sentences. Perhaps visual and auditory thinkers, have advantages there for it is through showing children pictures and actions that they often learn language.

But how would you teach language to someone with poor visual or auditory processing, who was neither a visual or auditory thinker or learner. What good would it do to show pictures to someone who can’t hold thought without connecting physically, tangibly, to what represents each thought? Or someone who maps not the interpretive intellectual meaning you intend but the emotional tone or interactive dynamic between you in the arbitrary behaviour of the showing? Or someone who you have just shown pictures to but who, without grasping any system will have little more than a fragmented overloading mosaic in their head? Perhaps if we wish to understand those who struggle to acquire functional speech with interpretive meaning we need to ask those who don’t rely on the usual thinking styles so common to verbal people.

Temple has now shifted to stating all autistics think in details. Again, whilst many do think only in details (which is associated with left hemisphere processing), those functionally non-verbal people without typed communication who seem to only attend to details cannot be assumed to think in details. There are many people with autism who fail so badly at both visual and auditory processing that, far from thinking only in details, a handful of recognisable details can be all that link quickly to meaning.

Having worked with over 600 people on the spectrum I have watched many people at the autistic end of the spectrum who navigate their world as though oblivious to the details, tuning in only to whether something feels nice, smells good, has a good texture or is a good movement-related buzz in their kinesthetic reality.

It’s too easy to project realities onto those who can’t verbally explain it for themselves; children, animals. It is folly to assume all children or all animals think or experience in any particular way. It is best perhaps to spend time with a blank mind to sense these things for yourself on a case by case basis. But first one would have to become mindless, thoughtless, and that may be such a hard task for anyone whose head is filled with compelling visual or auditory thoughts all the time.

… Donna Williams

autistic author of 9 books in the field of autism