In 2006 Dr. Temple Grandin published the second edition of her book Thinking in Pictures. Dr. Grandin is a woman with autism who, in addition to many other contributions to society, has written about her experiences living with autism to help elucidate what life is like for individuals like her. In her book (read chapter one here) she discusses how she thinks in vivid images rather than words as many typically developing people do. She posits that some individuals with autism exhibit this same characteristic which allows them to have strengths in “drawing, other arts, and building thins which building toys such as Lego’s”. This relative strength impacts how she is able to learn and express herself. Other individuals with autism have also expressed their tendency to rely on visual rather than verbal representations to comprehend and express themselves (Hulburt et al. 1994 as cited in Kunda and Goel, 2010).
An article, by Maithilee Kunda and Ashok K. Goel, published in the Journal of Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities (JADD, Online November 2010) analyzed the thinking in pictures hypothesis (TiP) by first clearly defining the hypothesis and then reviewing currently empirical evidence found in published research. They define the hypothesis thus:
“Assumption – Typically developing (TD) individuals are, in general, able to use both visual and verbal mental representations. Hypothesis – A subset of individuals on the autism spectrum exhibits a disposition towards using visual mental representations (and a corresponding bias against using verbal mental representations).”
They found, by looking at individual scores on assessment subtests (i.e. n-back task, serial recall, dual tasking, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, semantic processing and false belief tasks) reported in research studies, there is evidence which seems to support this hypothesis. While there was some data which seemed to contradict the hypothesis, there was enough evidence to support the need for further research directly investigating this hypothesis.
This research represents an interesting direction for new research to take. The understanding of how individuals with autism process information helps determine which intervention methods will best support their progress and development. Research has shown that visual modalities of teaching and learning are effective for individuals with autism, and future research down this road may help us determine even more effective interventions which take advantage of these cognitive strengths.