Autism and Visual Thinking

Community Member

Train in the bedroom by Max

Penguin Bubbles by Max

Crocodile in the Bathtub by Max

(Examples of my son's visual thinking and artistic expression at age six and seven)

Have you ever thought about the way you think? I know it is a strange question but it is one that scientists are now looking at with regard to people who are on the autism spectrum. In a recent BBC news report, there is a story about how University of Montreal scientists found that people who have autism have highly developed areas of the brain to process visual information. It seems there is a price to pay for this brain specialization. They also found that certain parts of the brain in people with autism are less active.

The study authors analyzed brain imaging studies conducted over a span of 15 years and compared the brain images of autistic participants with those who do not have autism. They found that autistic individuals show more activity in the temporal and occipital regions and less activity in the frontal cortex than people without autism. What this means in everyday language is that people with autism are probably going to be better at perceiving and recognizing visual patterns but may have difficulty in the ability to plan and make decisions. The study can be found in the April issue of the journal Human Brain Mapping.

As a parent of a child with autism my response to this report is, "Tell me something new!"

It seems this is a case where science validates what we pretty much know about autism especially if we have a family member who has been diagnosed with this disorder. Many children with autism are "visual thinkers." When I hear the term, visual thinker, I think of Temple Grandin, a famous animal scientist who is also an adult with autism. Her life story is depicted in an award winning movie called Temple Grandin where you get to see how her visual thinking helped her to think outside the box and problem-solve in a way few people can. Yet you also get to see where her style of thinking led to great difficulties in relating to others.

Temple Grandin is also the author of many books including "Thinking in Pictures" which details her way of processing information. She explains what thinking in pictures means on her website:

"I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures."

When I read Temple Grandin's book for the first time it was like a light bulb went off for me. It made so much sense to explain my son's thought processes and also how very difficult verbal language was and still is for him. It also explained my son's passion for art.

Shortly after my son, Max, was diagnosed with autism, he began to draw. Within the span of several months we found out that Max was both autistic and artistic. My son had never drawn much of anything before his fourth birthday. We had one coloring page where he scribbled randomly with a crayon and I labeled it "Blue" and hung it on the wall above his bed.

Part of Max's testing for his diagnosis was to imitate drawing a circle on a sheet of paper. He failed this segment of the test as he just sat there seemingly not understanding what was expected of him.   I was dubious about his lack of skills so when we got home I drew a circle and invited him to copy it. No response. Then I wondered if it were simply a matter of performance anxiety. So I drew a circle, told him what to do, and left him alone with the pencil and paper. When I came back he had drawn multiple circles all over the page.   My heart lifted. I then drew a simple smiley face and left him to copy it. But when I came back he had outdone my primitive drawing and had added details to the face such as eyebrows and glasses.   I was  ecstatic. Max had the skill all along but he never showed it until then.

From then on my son drew each and every day, sometimes going through whole reams of paper in less than a week's time. He is now fifteen and he never misses a day to draw. His drawing is a gift to us because it is a way to communicate with him. It is a portal to his world.

Max's way of thinking made me re-think all the traditional ways of teaching children. Most teaching is geared for children who learn verbally. Imagine the frustration of some children who have autism or other disorders who are less able to adapt to traditional instruction. One of my friends, a fellow parent of an autistic child, had a sign on her wall which read: If They Don't Learn the Way You Teach, Teach the Way They Learn. I have thought about that advice often as I have taught my son over the years. When my son was not able to talk, pictures provided a bridge so that we could communicate and understand each other. A visual system of instruction was the mechanism by which he was able to learn how to speak.

It should be said that not all children or individuals on the autism spectrum are visual thinkers. One should not assume anything about a person with autism until they take the time to get to know them and their style of learning. But my Max definitely is a visual thinker and an artist. His talent does not come from me as I still struggle with drawing stick figures.

I have attached some of Max's early drawings from when he was about six or seven to get a glimpse of his talents and passion for artistic expression. My best advice for any parent who has a child with special needs is to allow your child to find a creative outlet whether it be art, drama, dance, music, or other means to express themselves. We tend to think that the only way to communicate is through verbal speech and this just isn't so. There are many pathways to expression and understanding which can be explored.

For more information about autism please refer to the following ADHDCentral articles: