One of the characteristics of autism is the remarkable ability of most autistic individuals to excel at visual-spatial skills while performing very poorly at verbal skills.

Research has revealed that there are several types of visualisers. Maria Kozhevnikov and colleagues distinguish between object visualisers and spatial visualisers. (Temple Grandin calls the latter category ‘pattern thinkers’.)

Spatial thinking

However, spatial thinking is not necessarily visual, and doesn’t necessarily coincide with a good ability to relate oneself in space. (There are some spatial thinkers who have no sense of direction and are easily lost, even in familiar environments.) Perhaps there are more visual-spatial thinkers than other sensory-spacial ones, but it is wrong to limit spatial thinking to the visual domain only. ‘Spaciality’ implies a whole-part three-dimensional thinking in whatever domain it unfolds.

This means that spatial thinkers may be hopeless at reading maps, and are lost anywhere, but they are good at seeing the big picture and very creative in their chosen field, developing their own methods of organising materials and generating multiple and unconventional solutions to problems. Being a spatial thinker means that a person represents things in the mind with multidimensional model. This way of thinking brings both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it is easier to see certain patterns of the world and infer things from those patterns. They develop their own methods of problem-solving, can provide solutions but are unable to explain how they have been reached. On the other hand, it is more difficult to do things that are more sequential (one-dimensional and in a line), especially when such a task involves picking a one-dimensional line out of multidimensional possibilities.

Visual thinking

For visual thinkers, the ideas are expressed as visual images that provide a concrete basis for understanding. Every thought they have is represented by a picture. We may say that visual thinkers actually see their thoughts. They can take things apart and put them together in different designs and patterns, completely in their imagination; thus, manipulating images to solve problems.

Visual thinking is very fast, and often non-sequential. They easily solve jigsaw puzzles (even if the picture is upside-down or the wrong side up). Some memorise enormous amounts of information at a glance (though often its reproduction should be properly triggered, for example, instructions given by the same person with the same intonation, etc.).

For visual thinkers, words are like a second language. Their thought processes are different from verbal thinkers (language-based thinkers). In order to understand verbal information (both oral and written) they have to translate it into images. Temple Grandin, probably one of the most famous visual thinkers in the world, reveals that she has to translate both spoken and written words into full-colour movies, complete with sound. While reading, she translates written words into colour movies, or simply stores a photo of the written page to be read later – when she retrieves the stored material she sees this photocopy of the page in her imagination. When she lectures, the language is ‘downloaded’ out of memory from files that are like tape recordings.

Many autistic people have poor auditory short-term memory. They have difficulty remembering auditory instructions consisting of three or more steps. However, when these instructions are presented in ‘visual steps’ – pictures, photographs, etc. – it is much easier for them, as it helps them to ‘translate’ from ‘auditory’ into their internal visual mode.

Autistic children usually learn nouns first, as these are easily associated with pictures in their minds. They often have problems learning abstract things that cannot be thought about in pictures. To understand abstract concepts they use visual images. For example, to understand personal relationships, some used the image of sliding doors (Grandin). Words that have no concrete visual meaning, such as ‘the’, ‘it’, ‘am’, ‘is’, ‘put’, ‘on’ or ‘over’, have no meaning for them until they have a visual image to fix them in their memory. For example, to understand verbs and adverbs, they may visualise someone doing the action in certain manner.  

Not all autistic individuals are highly visual thinkers. They appear to be on a continuum of visualisation skills, ranging from next to none, to seeing vague generalised pictures, to seeing semi-specific pictures, to seeing, as in the case of Temple Grandin, very specific pictures. Unlike most people who think from general to specific, visual thinkers move from video-like, specific images to generalisation and concepts.

Visualised thinking patterns vary from one person to the other. Some visualisers can easily search the memory pictures as if they were searching through slides and are able to control the rate at which pictures ‘flash’ through their imagination. Others have a great difficulty in controlling the rate and may end up overloaded, with too many images coming all at once. Still others are slow to interpret the information in their visual mode. Thus, for a visual thinker, not being able to visualise quickly what is said, or mentally hold visual images together, means that verbal messages are not translated and remain meaningless (Grandin).

Besides, the quality of visual thinking may depend on the state the person is in, and even the time of the day, for instance, for some, pictures are clearer and most detailed when they are falling asleep.

However, it is important to remember that NOT ALL autistic individuals are visual in their thought-production process. Some autistic persons may use a different modality, for instance, auditory/ kinaesthetic/ tactile thinking.


Grandin, T. (2014) The Autistic Brain. London: Rider.

Kozhevnikov, M. et al. (2010) ‘Trade-off in object versus spatial visualization abilities: Restriction in the development of visual-processing resources.’ Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 17(1), 29-35.
Written by Olga Bogdashina on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services