Does your child seem other-worldly? Is he anxious, sad or happy whenever you are? Does he speak in a very idiosyncratic way – as if his mother tongue is a foreign language? Or does he disconcert people because he seems to have a real insight into them?
If so that may be related to his stage of thought for, like every other aspect of our lives, thought too has its own developmental path. In early infancy the baby lives in a world of sensing while at the next pre-verbal stage the infant will think in pictures, until he finally learns to interpret the world in words.
As Donna Williams tells us in her book Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct, at that early ‘preconscious’ stage the baby’s world is dominated by pattern, theme and feel: in which things are sensed and felt both through body and movement – but never interpreted.
So when autism develops at an early stage some children with ASD get ‘stuck’ in that sensing stage. Some, like Donna, retain the gift of sensing, even after they have gradually moved on to thinking in words. However many of those who do ‘move on’ actually lose that sensing ability once they learn to interpret words in a different way – like Nadia, who had autism and severe language delay. A gifted artist she began drawing all over the walls when she just 3 – drawing eloquent and remarkable pictures of horses, horsemen and more, only to lose her artistic ability as she learnt to speak.
Maybe though your child’s problems are different. Does your child find it hard to follow conversations? Or have difficulty responding when spoken to? Or do his gifts lie in the area of art, design or computing?
If so, like many people with dyslexia – and some, others with ASD – he may think in pictures. Much of the research in this area was initiated by Ron Davis who had a whole range of problems throughout his childhood, the most daunting being his inability to read. Despite that he made a fortune in engineering and, after finally managing to teach himself to read and write, he founded the Davis Dyslexia Association International (DDAI) to help others.
Thinking in pictures is a major hindrance when people learn to read because the person builds up a picture in his mind, adding to it as more concepts arise. It is far faster than thinking in words and an advantage in the arts and computing but it puts the child at a real disadvantage when he learns to read.
That is because while it is easy to visualize nouns, verbs and some other words, other words (particularly abstract concepts such as pronouns and adverbs) like ‘I, you, it, with, if’, or ‘and’ are much harder to visualize. Thus the sentence ‘His house is big and it has a chimney pot’ would seem to read ‘… house… big … … … chimney pot’. Confusing! Does the word big relate to the house or simply the chimney pot?
One of the most well-known people with Asperger’s is Dr Temple Grandin. Despite having Asperger’s syndrome, she gained a doctorate in animal sciences and now designs equipment for handling cattle which is used across the world. As her book Thinking in Pictures shows, thinking in that way has been a great help in conceiving and developing her designs.
It is probable that visual thinking underlies some of the cognitive problems and speech difficulties that such children have. If you cannot easily conceive the meaning of such words, how can you possibly understand sentences easily? Or respond easily and fluently, for there will always be a time-lapse as you ‘translate’ the words into an informative picture and then ‘translate’ back into the words you need. No wonder such children find it hard to ‘keep up’ with the conversation.
A final thought. Could those different ways of thinking help to account for the differences between people with autism and those with Asperger’s syndrome? Yes, I know it’s been knocked out of the DSM-5 but I happen to think it probably does.
What’s your view?