Executive function and visual thinking

Some people when asked to imagine a church steeple will imagine something generic pointing up into the air. Me? I would see, in detail, the spire of St Thomas’s Longroyd Bridge near here, or again Wakefield Cathedral… now it is Salisbury Cathedral… and now the crooked spire of Chesterfield.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. New York
Photo by Charles Parker on Pexels.com

Visual and abstract thinking

I am a visual thinker. I am also an abstract thinker. What I am not is someone who naturally thinks in words. Some people seem to think only in words, which I find odd not only is it not my go to way of thinking, but an 18 month-old toddler has a brain and can think before they have any language skills. There has to be a way that the human brain works that is more fundamental than through language.

Of course if I put my mind to it I can think in words. The words on the screen that you are reading shows that I can do that, but it is often me translating the pictures and abstractions in my head. Abstract thinking is also why my writing, and talking, can go off on a tangent, sometimes several tangents at once if I am multitasking.

The steeple example I started with comes from a paper How does visual thinking work in the mind of a person with autism? A personal account. Snappy title huh? In it the author, Temple Grandin, observed that there are three different specialised autistic cognitive types. They are:

  1. visual thinkers such as I who are often poor at algebra,
  2. pattern thinkers who excel in math and music but may have problems with reading or writing composition, and
  3. verbal specialists who are good at talking and writing but they lack visual skills.

I don’t identify with those groups. I am a visual thinker who can do algebra quite well; I am a pattern thinker who has no problems reading or writing. I fit two of the categories. To be fair she does, in the paper, mention her difficulties in forming new categories of information in her mind, so I shall be lenient.

I also disagree with the functioning language used in the report, though this is not unexpected in a 2009 paper. The autistic people who are very good in fields of science, music or art can be the same people who have difficulty dress in themselves. I have communicated to autistic people who are non-verbal but can use social media, even if it takes 40 minutes to compose a single tweet their intelligence shines through. Anyhow there are times when my functioning is not what it usually is. My executive function sometimes doesn’t function, sometimes does. I’d love to see a study linking the dominant ways of thinking in autism and if and how they link to executive thinking.

My brain not naturally working in verbal skills makes a difference to how I do Christianity. I pray in pictures rather than words, using visual thinking and my abstract, pattern thinking goes as far as using a spreadsheet as a Bible study aid. That’s me, I don’t expect others to use the same methods. Autism is personal in that everyone’s autism is different.

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