Putting autism in the simplest terms is to describe it as a different way of processing information. Of course, the autism spectrum and its various syndromes and symptoms are much more complex than that but, thinking and information processing is at the root of autism itself. So, what is so different about the way someone on the spectrum thinks and takes in information?
Research shows that there are a few common thinking styles with people on the spectrum. In a recent Forbes piece, one high functioning adult on the spectrum, Temple Grandin, broke it down best. Professor Grandin is an autism spokesperson, professor at Colorado State University and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviors. In a published piece, she highlighted several distinct styles of thinking that many on the spectrum tend to gravitate toward.
Visual Thinking: Visual thinkers think more in images than words. They may see things in their mind or physically to process information. Additionally, once the images are associated to a specific train of thought, the words and image become associated and banked as a memory. Visual thinkers can have photographic or near photographic memories, and their thought process tends not to be linear. For visual thinkers, seemingly unrelated images can be associated, per Grandin’s account. This can lead to confusion between teachers and other peers. A visual thinker may recall one image tied to a memory, and associate it with something that seems unrelated, but makes perfect sense to them. This can lead to sudden shifts in the subject of conversations, causing confusion for the other party teaching or talking to someone on the spectrum.
Verbal/ Logic Thinking: Verbal and Logic Thinkers tend to learn and remember things that seem unimportant or irrelevant to those around them. Many verbal/logic thinkers appreciate and learn languages, make lists, and remember facts and trivia about very specific, niche interests. The most common barriers verbal/logic thinkers face are related to visual thinking and imagery.
Music/Math/Pattern Thinking: Music, math and pattern thinkers find patterns and geometry in everything. Pattern thinkers are in some ways, visual thinkers who instead of thinking in distinct images, see patterns in design, math, music and more in their day to day lives. Pattern thinkers tend to love their routines and that all things move and progress in a pattern they can understand and replicate. They face the most challenge with sudden change or irregularity.
Bottom-up Thinking: Bottom-up thinkers think in a unique way. Instead of taking in the bigger picture of things at first glance then going into the details, they recognize details more readily, then compile their own big picture in a succinct way. Individuals on the spectrum are more prone to this kind of associative thinking. They are often referred to as “details-before-concepts” people rather than the neurotypical “concept before details” style of processing information. According to Grandin, this leads to a unique benefit: more innovative thoughts and ideas, not constrained by the usual tropes and defined lines of the social neurotypical.
Associative Thinking: Most individuals on the spectrum are associative thinkers rather than linear thinkers. In other words, one thought connects to another and so on through sometimes loose or seemingly irrelevant connections. The process by which one memory becomes associated with another will largely seem odd by neurotypical standards, but the individual on the spectrum’s style of thought will determine the nature of the association.
Analytical Thinking: People with an autism spectrum disorder think in a logically consistent way that leads to quick decision making. These thinkers can make decisions without experiencing the framing effect that inhibits most neurotypicals from making decisions without bias.
Lateral Thinking: People on the spectrum can be excellent problem solvers. This, in large part is due to the various styles of thinking that allow them to think logically, in patterns, visually and so on. They make decisions quickly, and process their information and memories in a way that helps them be creative and think outside the box.
Professor Grandin’s studies demonstrate two certainties: 1) The human brain is a complex organ and everybody’s works a little differently and 2) The way individuals on the spectrum process information affords them a unique perspective on the world around them while allowing for creative problem solving and innovation.
All of these thinking “styles” may overlap in any one individual, and like with most things, you can’t say for sure that every person with autism is this way. Instead, these studies offer a glimpse into the lives of those around us on the spectrum. For more resources and info on the autism spectrum, stay tuned on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and feel free to reach out on our contact page.