By Donna Williams
If you listen to people like Temple Grandin,
all 'autistics' think in pictures.
I have heard from many on the spectrum who think
without pictures or struggle to make or hold a
mental picture at all.
So, for the record, there is not a simplistic
division between auditory-verbal non-autie thinkers
(thinking in words) and visual-picture autistic
spectrum thinkers (thinking in pictures). This
is simplistic and forgets all those who think
in systems, think in physical/tactile experiences
and movement or think in music for that matter.
Temple is an engineer and PhD who was re-diagnosed
with Asperger's in adulthood after an infancy
that appeared more autistic, so she may well be
saying that those, who like her, have Asperger's,
tend to think in pictures.
Again, whilst there may be many engineers and
techies who do, many people with autism are neither
engineers nor techies and, there are actually
seven dominant modes of learning style:
The learning styles are:
Visual (spatial). You prefer using pictures,
images, and spatial understanding.
Aural (auditory-musical). You prefer using sound
Verbal (linguistic). You prefer using words, both
in speech and writing.
Physical (kinesthetic). You prefer using your
body, hands and sense of touch.
Logical (mathematical). You prefer using logic,
reasoning and systems.
Social (interpersonal). You prefer to learn in
groups or with other people.
Solitary (intrapersonal). You prefer to work alone
and use self-study.
So, as someone diagnosed with autism in adulthood
(after a childhood thought deaf, called psychotic
and labelled disturbed)
where am I?
Well, I can tell you that I have songs going
around in my head almost constantly. It's definitely
my most dominant style of 'thought'.
Its certainly my best way of understanding what
emotion I sense others in or feel in myself in
relation to people, places and experiences.
Until I was 9 much of my language repertoire was
bits of jingles and songs.
Still, if someone uses a butchered song to sing
me a topic I process far more than if they spoke
Still when listening, my brain struggles to get
past the sounds to the meaning.
As for rhythm, without constantly moving, I seem
to go rather brain dead.
I am also a musician and around 30-50% of the
relatives I met on my father's side of the family
were either artists, musicians or writer's
So what does this mean for language and socialising?
It means that you adapt these things for your
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
When in interaction with a musical mind, join
them through tunes, rhythms, songs, patterns and
when the person is then more receptive to you
and language because of this, progressively meaning,
or whatever can be made of it, will take care
But my second form of learning is certainly physical,
I'm a mover.
I have always moved, always been a jiggler who
couldn't stay seated.
If it doesn't move, I often don't know what it
Jiggle an object and 'bingo', recognition.
And with reading too... it distresses and overwhelms
me, ....except on a train, perhaps also in the
and the same with expressive speech....if I'm
walking or in a moving car, bingo, blah blah blah...
but sitting, its like I'm sitting on my brain
If I'm moving, its like the speech area of my
brain comes on line better.
What would this mean for children in mainstream
told, sit still and listen?
I love words that have an action, like 'bop',
these words 'gel' for me where those without actions
are like an intangible language... I'm not a visual
thinker, words don't gel with images for me, hence
the 30% of words which have little capacity to
put gesture to them just float off into meaninglessness
within seconds and tumble, unsecured, into a matted
jumble of blah.
When I'm listening to people or reading on the
computer, my leg rocks or foot jiggles the whole
Is this how a kinaesthetic person links in to
As an artist, I'm spatial but I don't start with
images, I almost always start with a messy pattern
then find the picture. I struggle to create one
from my mind, like most kinesthetic learners,
I'm a discovery learner.
My art is very 3D, space and movement is essential,
far more than image.
Most of my figures have no faces, they are redundant
and far more is expressed without them.
The background, too, seems irrelevant to me, and
is always very minimal.
Yet the expression is utterly full, nothing is
I always saw things in bits, not as a cohesive
whole till I was an adult.
My capacity to visually recognise objects outside
they usual place, use or form is very poor and
I'm often so meaning blind I had a psychiatrist
once declare 'you have agnosia'.
I use objects to hold concepts where I am unable,
like visual thinkers, to hold an image, let alone
multiple images, in my mind.
My dreams are in movement, theme and feel far
more than image alone. I get a 'sense' of them,
not a movie.
I write films, I've written 4, the last 3 were
fictional. They captivate those who've read them
who say the characters are immensely tangible
to the degree its hard to imagine they are not
real. Yet they come to life with no images, they
are like the dreams of a blind person, I feel
these people, how they move, and the dance of
their interactions with others. Its like a symphony
of life. They are about being, and doing.
Yet whilst many people on the spectrum may be
visual thinkers, many are not and some struggle
to grasp systems like PECS even if they can use
real objects quite well instead of pictures. Real
objects are known through the body. They gel for
kinesthetic learners. Pictures must be held as
concepts in the mind, something visual thinkers
can do well but kinesthetic thinkers will struggle
to retain or use with consistency.
I'm not much of a visual thinker even though I
will use objects and gesture to indicate what
I'm struggling to express verbally.
I think in systems and am so logical that in
my world, all things are possible.
No matter what extraordinary thing you tell me,
I almost always take it all as possible.
This may sound illogical, but it is like there
are no boxes, yet I will find the system in anything.
In an IQ test the psychologist threw a trick question
The other pairs were things like 'apple and orange',
'cat and horse'.
He asked me, what is the similarity between a
tree and a fly.
I thought for quite some time, all manner of patterns
cross referenced in a flash.
Then, I got it.
'They are both effected by the wind', I replied.
I do almost everything alone.
Some of this is sensory flooding.
Some of this is slow processing leading to overload.
Some of this is inability to understand things
without gesture to see the experiences behind
But in the end, all of it means I learn best ALONE.
The more you put me with others, the less I process.
As a writer, I use words. But my typing is vastly
easier than my speaking.
Typing is the only place words are natural to
I love words as sounds and shapes, but verbal
words fall away, tumbling like clouds in a windy
Typing, like objects and gesture and song, grounds
I'm a wordsmith, and with a degree in linguistics
(its a very systems oriented subject that requires
much rote learning) but I'm not the standard linguistic
learner and learning reliant on words without
gesture is a torture like fingernails down the
blackboard leaving me pretty wound up!
I love being around people, but not in among
I'm the fly on the wall.
I love their patterns and diversity.
I'm interested in what is different and the sameness
But I do not learn together with others well,
it is more an obstacle than a help, unless they
are in their own space, parallel.
Then I can progressively merge into their patterns,
and, using kinesthetic sense, learn through doing.
...Donna Williams *)
author of 9 published books in the field of autism.
copyright 2005 Donna Williams
Donna Williams *)
Ever the naughty Autie.