Saturday, October 22, 2011

Does autism really mean "visual thinking"?

Many people have claimed, my students included, that people with autism are "visual thinkers." But try as I have to find empirical support for this, I've mostly come up dry. All of my Google Scholar searches lead ultimately to Temple Grandin and to her anecdotal accounts of her own visual thinking. What about autistic individuals in general?

The notion that autistic people are "visual thinkers" seems to stem primarily, not from experimental data, but from the sorts of therapeutic and teaching strategies that appear to work best. Pictures, flowcharts, visual schedules, written prompts and directions: these are the common denominators of a whole range of autism remediations.

But why are they so effective? Is it necessarily because autistic children are deeply visual in their thinking? Or might it have more to do with their difficulties in paying attention to the things we want them to attend to? Perhaps it all boils down to the fact that aural information is fleeting while visual information tends to linger. If a child tunes out to your oral directions, the written directions are still there waiting. Similarly "visual," by this token, are kids with ADD/ADHD.

Language delays also play a role: where words fail, as they so often do in autism, a picture speaks a thousand words.

Finally, there's that special appeal of text--of letters and numbers--not just for the hyperlexic subpopulation, but for AS children in general, drawn as they are towards shapes and symbols. J, for example, follows a movie much better with the captions on--and not just because he's deaf or "visual", but because he's much more interested in printed words than in the ones that come out of people's mouths.


Anonymous said...

This is a very astute observation. People on the autistic spectrum do need extra prompts to capture and focus their attention (as do ADHD and ADD people). Providing a visual prompt that they can access constantly or repeatedly and on their own is a great help, and would explain why nonverbal children with autism are rarely taught sign language, which is visual but evanescent.

Amanda said...

Another hypothesis: good diagrams and other visuals can make underlying structure and linkages much clearer than a page of text or a teacher explanation on their own: maybe what seems to work with autistic children would actually be good for all children.

Katharine Beals said...

Great points. Anon, Sign Language is a great example of somthing that is visual but fleeting. (The first thing came to my mind when I wrote this post was lightning--much less relevant!)

And Amanda's idea that what works for AS (or special needs in general) children might work for all children is something I've often wondered about. Direction instruction in phonics for dyslexia comes to mind. Special needs kids seem to force good teaching practices more than other children do. Perhaps that why some of the best teachers are special ed teachers (

Deirdre Mundy said...

With respect to lists, organization methods, visual schedules, etc---

In my experience, the difference isn't that these things DON'T help normal people as well--it's that the ADHD kids need more overt instruction, practice and time with the organizational tools that seem to be second nature to the "normal" kids. The same goes for phonics, I think-- the kids I've seen who are "natural readers" also use phonics, they just picked them up without overt instruction.....