What Does It Mean that Autistics Think in Pictures?

Autistics think visually, why this hinders good communication, and what you can do about it. Have you seen the Temple Grandin movie? She’s a high-functioning autistic who has built a life helping others understand autism. (She also specializes in understanding what spooks cattle). She’s written a book about thinking in pictures because that’s the only way she relates to the world around her. There are a number of good YouTube videos, like this one if you start at the 9 minute mark, that give you some insight into her visual thinking process.Temple has an interesting example on how people think about church steeples. Most people think of a generalized image, but her mind flashes through images of existing churches at specific locations that she’s seen in the past. She never sees things in a generalized way, but sees very detailed examples.

Of course, we can all visualize to a degree. At least we call it that. We might see a color in our “mind’s eye” when told to see red. What about a checked tablecloth? Or your first car? But we don’t generally “think in pictures.” We tend to use pictures, or little movies as methods of organizing data, along with words, emotions, feelings, and other types of thought.

Autistics on the other hand rely much more on pictures. This explains why they have a photographic memory or can focus on the minutest detail. As handy as thinking in pictures can be for certain tasks, it can be a disaster for interpersonal communication. Without words to go along with those pictures, we’re left wondering what they’re thinking about. Without empathy, they may ramble on about their topic of interest without realizing we can’t see their picture.

For our Aspies it’s also extremely troubling that we can’t see their pictures. How can they convey what they are feeling or experiencing?

If you’re a member of Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD Meetup

, please join us for the free international teleconference on Thursday, December 14th, at 2:30 PM PT. Our topic is:

What does it mean that autistics think in pictures? Bring your own examples of how your Aspies think in pictures. But if it makes no sense to you yet, don’t give up. We’ll keep translating for you.

If you’d rather have a one-on-one session with me and you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA please contact my Jantzen Beach office and schedule an appointment. I also offer online therapy if that works best for your busy schedule.

4 Replies to “What Does It Mean that Autistics Think in Pictures?”

  1. My daughter is 8, the doctors are always skirting giving the “other “ dx. She is very visual and has been telling me about seeing things in pictures. What resources can you lead me toward to understand her better?

    1. You might read some of the works by Dr. Temple Grandin. One of her books, “Thinking in Pictures” is obviously relevant. The eidetic imagery that many on the Autism Spectrum possess is an amazing trait.

  2. Folks, I have found Dr. Temple Grandin’s work very enlighting and helpful as I have struggled my entire life trying to fit into the box academia has created for people. Growing up in the ’50’s I experienced considerable disapproval in school because I could not memorize lists of words or spell words. I learned phonics by the 3rd grade and could work out the definition of words. By the time I was in the 4th grade I could read 1,000 words a minute with 90% comprehension but had absolutely no recall of individual words. When I read I usually do not see words but entire sentences and sometimes full paragraphs at once. The whole concept of how the English language is organized has always escaped me. In my search for help I have been accused by professionals of being lazy, not interested in doing it the right way and rebellious. To compensate I relate everything to pictures. If you say refrigerator I see a big white box, motor, freon, shelves with dozens of different items on them including the brands of the catsup and mustard. Without the help of spell check I have no idea how to spell refrigerator. Fortunately I was blessed with a brilliant father who taught me math as a very small child and how to read. But the most important thing he taught me was that if I read I could do anything I wanted. After leaving high school, (Voted least likely to succeed.) I tried to attend the university but found when I asked the question “Why” in science class I was asked to leave because the professor didn’t know the why of what he was telling us because he had never done anything outside of academia and therefore had no first hand knowledge of the subject. My interests are in the why, not in just absorbing what someone else tells me. I am always thinking of a better way to do things (tasks) so I searched for employers who were more interested in my ideas than my credentials. In the end I created long range production predictive software in the late 70’s, moved to another employer and took over the production of a large animal feed operation and became an animal feed nutritionist developing special zoo foods for exotic animals. Moving on I designed new advances and functionality for feed mills and eventually developed a new way to make dog food that retained more vitamins in the ingredients. In the early 2000’s I left the world of production and using my accumulated knowledge setup a consulting and software development firm which today is dominant in it’s field. I have been laughed at, sneered at and accused of being rude because I can’t spell without a computers help. But at the age of 79 I am still helping many family held corporations improve their productivity and profitability by designing new functionality for their warehousing and distribution processes. I am financially successful, have a son who owns a nation wide consulting firm dedicated to helping state and district level academia institutions in asset organization and development. My daughter is a PHD and a full professor at a university training early education teachers. I dream extensively each night and can typically remember my dreams. My wife tells me I have Asperger’s because I don’t relate well socially (I find my people boring and rude.) and when I watch a movie I always have something in my hand twisting or moving it around. I fully sympathize with Dr. Temple Grandin because of the stigma of not being normal. But, like Dr. Temple Grandin I have achieved much that others can’t and see much of life as it is that others don’t. Seeing in pictures creates a lonely life as true friends are few and far between. Someday I wish someone would just say, “I think you are a bit special. I can over look your spelling for the other great things you’ve done.” Maybe someday.

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience of thinking in pictures because it gives NTs perspective on your loneliness. It is amazing to me that the first child diagnosed with Autism came in 1943. This man is now age 90. His parents were determined to find help for their son and the family. Eventually they contacted Dr. Leo Kanner, a well known psychiatrist. After examining the child and having no way to diagnose his condition, Dr. Kanner discovered other similar children and published his first paper in April 1943. Before then Autistic children were labelled “imbeciles,” or “mentally defective.” What a tragedy.

      Even though we finally have a diagnosis, we still know very little about the Autism Spectrum or how to help the NeuroDiverse build full and loving lives. Even more tragic is that we have so little research on the heartbreaking loneliness that the NeuroDiverse feel, especially in NeuroDivergent relationships.

      By the way, I believe the loneliness the NeuroDiverse experience is felt full force by their NeuroTypical loved ones. It is a common complaint but instead of looking for the answer within it is easy to blame the other person. Time to embrace this loneliness as a message to be Love and to be Loving regardless of the NeuroDiversity.

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