April 28, 2022

Autistic people and visual thinking

How knowledge about our cognitive processing style can help us find tools that play to our strengths

Agustina C.M.

Guest Writer

Autistic people and visual thinking

The idea that people process information differently, regardless of their neurotype, is not new. In 1983, a psychologist called Howard Gardner questioned the then widely accepted belief that there’s only one way to register, process, and learn information, suggesting at least eight of them in his work on multiple intelligences.

One of these different ways of processing information has been defined as a visual-spatial ability. Visual-spatial ability refers to being able to effectively sense the visual-spatial world and is more commonly known as visual thinking. People who are visual thinkers can think in pictures, take in information visually, and understand it more profoundly than if they were to read or listen to it. They are more sensitive to colors, lines, shapes, forms, spaces, and the interactions that exist between them. Visual-spatial thinking involves using visual images to solve problems, create new ideas, and understand complex concepts. The definition of visual thinking is the act of thinking through and communicating ideas visually.

While not every Autistic person is a visual learner, visual thinkers are common among the Autistic population. We tend to be more sensitive to details and patterns in our environments and therefore, more likely to notice subtle differences in shapes, colors, or forms. One of the most common misconceptions regarding visual thinking is limited to just images. Forms, shapes, lines, colors, scale, proximity; these aspects are essential to take into account as they provide details about how data relates to other pieces of information, how significant something is in the scheme of things, how close two ideas are to one another, and comprises both visual and cognitive dimensions that go way beyond pictures.

As an Autistic person myself who is also ADHD, my visual thinking functions as a channel to pay attention and register information more effectively for further processing and integration. Moreover, certain aspects of my neurodivergent profile, such as greater attention to detail, pattern recognition, and ability to come up with an array of different possibilities for a single situation, mean that associating similar or relevant information comes easy. Almost as if it was the scene of a movie or a painted picture, I can see how information connects, allowing my brain to cut down several cognitive processes that would otherwise have to be involved if the information was delivered in a massive chunk of text or by auditory channels.

Spoken information can be tricky to process for people on the spectrum, particularly those of us with more sensitive and avoidant sensory processing profiles, meaning our brains take in sensory information to a higher degree than those who aren’t. In addition, many Autistic people have auditory processing challenges, meaning that we find it hard to understand what people are saying, despite hearing all the sounds loud and clear. Conversations, spoken instructions, and verbal information can be more difficult to register because we can listen to the sounds, but, at a cognitive level, our brains are not processing the information accurately. Furthermore, Autism impacts almost everyone’s ability to communicate through spoken language to some degree or another. Some people don't use spoken language at all, while others can use it but may struggle to interpret spoken words into meaning quickly. Visuals can assist Autistic people in academic environments and workspaces to comprehend what is being stated or taught without needing to quickly translate spoken words to information, as well as help people with limited spoken language communicate with others.

With visuals, it’s easier to spot patterns and faster to associate information that relates to each other, reducing uncertainty at unclear details and meaning. Even when it comes to abstract ideas that are harder to grasp for us, visuals provide a more concrete way to process them.

Routines, for example, exist for most of us but aren’t visible to us unless we take the time to write them down or display them through visual channels. For Autistic and other Neurodivergent people such as ADHDers, our executive functioning profiles often significantly impact our time perception. As a result, remembering relevant information in our day-to-day lives is extremely difficult. This is where visual aids with icons and color labeling such as Tiimo can make all the difference in how we go about our days.

Speaking of time, many Autistic people struggle, even those who utilize timetables and calendars, to "feel" the passing of time or fully appreciate what it means to say "you have an hour to do something”. This often results in overestimating or miscalculating the amount of time we have to finish a task. Visual clocks and timers can provide us with a better understanding of time to help us make better use of it.

Bringing awareness to different cognitive processing styles is so important, as it allows us to try tools that are potentially more aligned to our neurodivergent profiles and more likely to work for us with the focus on building up our strengths, rather than just working on our challenges. For visual thinkers, this means leaning into our visual-spatial ability and integrating visual tools into our daily life.

Agustina is the voice behind @theautisticlife, a space where she shares resources about living life as a Neurodivergent human. You can find more of Agustina's content via theautistic.life, @theautisticlife on Instagram or on Patreon.

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