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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Understanding Visual Thought and Autism

The best way to help an autistic child cope with change is to understand the way they think, so you can present ideas and situations to them in a way they will effectively comprehend. 

While the average person thinks in language, the average person with autism thinks in pictures

This thinking process is known as visual thought.  Visual thought is when a person thinks in pictures, images or even movies, instead of actual words and concepts. 

Therefore, for most autistics, words are like a second language.

Written and spoken words are transformed into moving pictures with sounds in their mind.  It is through the comprehension of their visual thoughts that they can either identify with a situation and words, or not understand.

Recent research on autistic thinking has found that people with autism are inclined to focus on specific details instead of the bigger picture.  Unlike a normal brain that connects all of its different processing parts together, the brain of someone with autism is not entirely connected to each of its systems.  This is what sometimes makes autistics excellent at one thing and unskilled at something else. 

Visual thinkers have difficultly forming concepts.  This is because conceptual thinking usually occurs in the frontal cortex of the brain; the part of the brain that has unusual makeup in autistics.  The frontal cortex incorporates information from the thinking, sensory and emotional areas of the brain.  Due to the fact that the frontal cortex of autistics is not properly connected to the other parts of the brain, they encounter problems when it comes to carrying out normal functions.  

Most autistics excel at visual spatial skills, but have difficulty with verbal skills.  Instead of developing new conceptual ways of thinking through emotions and words, they can create new visualizations by taking small pieces of other images they have stored in their memory banks to create new visual concepts of understanding.  They translate words into pictures, and piece pictures together with actual experiences to create video-like images that make up their thought process.

Autistic individuals have difficulty learning things that cannot be visualized as a picture.  For this reason, nouns become the easiest words for children to understand and learn because they can be directly related to images.  However, prepositions, verbs, etc. are more difficult for autistics to process because the usually do not understand these words until they are associated with an actual event they remember doing.  For instance, the word "under" may be understood through a memory of going under a table.  Usually, an autistic has difficulty with words that cannot be converted to pictures and have no definite meaning on their own such as the word "and".

One of the best ways to help the average person understand the autistic brain is to visit an online image based search engine (e.g. Google Images) and type in words.  The images these words produce can give you an idea of how autistics think and use pictures to form concepts.

The best way to teach an autistic child is to build on their strengths, not just on that which they have difficulty.  Thus, teaching and communicating with a visualization aid can be very effective and help them process their thoughts.  In most cases, the more someone with autism learns, the more they will comprehend and understand that they think and feel in a different way than the average person.

Just remember, effectively communicating with a person with autism can take time.  Therefore, you need to be patient, understanding, and engage your sense of humour.