(Note: This blog was scheduled to be posted earlier but was not. Apparently, the scheduling program did not perform as expected. My apology.)
This blog is the first in a two-part series about the different ways that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) think. It is modeled after an article written in 1995 by Dr. Temple Grandin entitled, “How People with Autism Think.” I have taken what Dr. Grandin wrote about autism and applied it to the unique features of ASD, intending to clarify how people with this condition process information, what they pay attention to, how they form ideas, and how they come to have certain opinions, beliefs, and impressions.
In this blog, I am concentrating on two types of thinking: Concreteness and Sensory Thinking. In the companion to this blog, I will focus on Attention and what I call Emotional Thinking. Understanding these four types of thinking helps explain how and why people with Autism Spectrum Disorder behave as they do while offering possibilities for intervening if, and when, such actions are desirable.
A note of caution—it is a misleading to characterize people with Autism Spectrum Disorder as uniformly the same. They are not. In truth, Autism is a widely varied, complex, and irregular syndrome, and the boundaries separating it from other conditions are often hard to detect. When I speaking of the thought processes of adults with ASD I am doing so in general terms. Some with ASD may not fit this description at all while it may describe others perfectly. That is the nature of both Autism and humanity.
Perhaps the most common characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorder thinking is a type of literalness known as concrete thinking. This refers to the way objects are not used as representations of something else. A cardboard tube is exactly that to the person who thinks concretely, not a stand-in, for example, of a telescope.
People who think concretely are literal. They don’t generalize from events or experiences to other events or experiences. If someone appears angry in one instance, that same expression at another time might not indicate anger to the person who thinks concretely because he or she has trouble inferring that an expression at one time means something similar at another.
For people who think concretely, abstract meaning is hard to grasp. They are apt to argue that someone who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones because it would break the glass.
The degree of concreteness varies but overall it is a frequent characteristic and tends to be present in some form among people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Most people process and interpret the world through language concepts. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder, on the other hand, tend to categorize the world around them by their sensory qualities, such as shapes, tastes, smells, sounds, how they feel and how they look. A friend, for example, is someone who looks, sounds, or smells a certain way, and if that friend dresses differently than usual, or changes hair style, or puts on glasses, a person with ASD may have trouble recognizing that friend.
Thinking in pictures is especially common in those with ASD. Concepts are first represented pictorially, literally as a picture, then translated into words, which are finally communicated verbally to others. When talking about dogs, for example, the person might access the visual representation of a specific dog. That visual memory is connected to the language-based concept of a dog and once that connection is made it can be expressed verbally as “dog.”
Not everyone with Autism Spectrum Disorder thinking visually. Smell, touch, hearing are dominate senses for some, and in those instances the connection to words is first established through experiencing the world via whichever sensory modality is dominate. Once that is established, verbal communication can take place.
I have described two common types of thinking among those with Autism Spectrum Disorder but it should be stressed that not everyone who has ASD thinks concretely or through the senses. They are dominant ways of thinking but not universal.
Furthermore, the degree of concrete or sensory thinking varies among people with Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as within any one individual. Some have a high degree of concreteness and others a low degree, and the same is true of sensory thinking. In high-stress situations, for example, someone who is moderately concrete can suddenly think and act in a highly concrete way, and the same applies to sensory thinking. These are characteristic ways of thinking, not necessarily how one thinks all the time, in every situation.
In my next blog I will describe Attention and Emotional Thinking, when they tend to occur, what it’s like to think that way, and how they are experienced by others. I will also address the question of whether these types of thinking, and the two I mentioned in this blog, can be modified in any way and, if so, how.