Temple Grandin, the well-known scientist, professor and autism spokesperson, believes there are three principle types of thinking in people on the autistic spectrum, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Although each person is strongest in one of these types, any one person can have a mixture of two or three.
Grandin is a photo-realistic visual thinker. Her mind is similar to an Internet search engine that searches for photographs. To form concepts, she sorts pictures into categories similar to computer files. To form the concept of orange, for example, she sees many different orange objects, such as oranges, pumpkins, orange juice and marmalade.
Rather than thinking in a linear fashion, where an idea starts from one point, follows a series of connected steps and ends at a different point, her thinking is associative. She links one thought to second thought that has a basic element in common but is not sequentially related. As she puts it:
If you say the word “butterfly,” the first picture I see is butterflies in my childhood backyard. The next image is metal decorative butterflies that people decorate the outside of their houses with and the third image is some butterflies I painted on a piece of plywood when I was in graduate school.
This type of thinking relies on accumulating lots of little details and finding ways of putting them together to form concepts and theories. Bits and pieces of information are reassembled into a coherent concept, like that of butterflies in the example above.
Words, as they appear in print, speech, or in one’s mind, is the source of a second type of thinking. Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder who think predominantly in words tend to be good at learning languages, and are adept at literature and speaking. They often have a huge memory for verbal facts. They are adept at learning languages, making lists, and memorizing facts, such as software code, instructional manuals, and historical events. Their ability to process information relies on the structure of language and fits neatly together with patterns of language and writing.
Patternicity is the tendency to find patterns in information that appears unconnected. Often, the patterns are real, while at other times they are manifestations of chance. Pattern recognition tells us something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that help with learning and adaptation.
Pattern thinking is a more abstract form of visual thinking. Thoughts are patterns rather than visual pictures. Pattern thinkers see arrangements between ideas, words, concepts and events, and the connections between these create meaning for the person.
These three types of thinking lend themselves to different ways of constructing ideas. Some adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, whether they are visual, verbal or pattern thinkers, are good at taking in details and building up ideas into a generalized conclusion. As Grandin notes:
I read lots of journal papers and I take little pieces of information and put them together as if completing a jigsaw puzzle. Imagine if you had a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in a paper bag and you had no idea what the picture on the box is. When you start to put the puzzle together, you will be able to see what this picture is when it is approximately one-third or one-quarter of the way completed. When I solve a problem it is not top-down and theory driven. Instead, I look at how all the little pieces fit together to form a bigger picture.
Others on the autistic spectrum reason are excellent problem solvers, relying on associative thinking to form a web of information that leads to a hitherto unknown solution.
Still others use their analytic skills in a methodical step-by-step approach to thinking that allows them to break down complex problems into single and manageable components.
Whatever the particular category of thinking one is proficient in, harnessing that strength and directing it towards a productive, meaningful life enables any adult with Autism Spectrum Disorder to succeed in a world that often does not appreciate the unique skills and talents of those on the spectrum.