Visual thinking : the hidden gifts of people who think in pictures, patterns, and abstractions

Temple Grandin did not start to speak until she was two years old and was diagnosed with brain damage. Her parents were advised to place her in an institution.  She was born in 1947 and Temple says, “I was exhibiting most of the behaviors now fully associated with autism, including lack of eye contact, temper tantrums, lack of social contact, sensitivity to touch, and the appearance of deafness ... the medical profession had not started applying an autism diagnosis to children like me."  However at the time Temple was diagnosed with brain damage it was her mother’s determination to find help for her daughter’s verbal and behavioral problems that led her to a source that indicated the child was autistic. Based on the indicators, Temple Grandin’s mother found guidance at Boston Children’s Hospital, and because she was financially secure was able to hire private speech therapists, tutors and nannies who worked with the young girl.  Later, at Hampshire Country School in Rindge, New Hampshire Temple met William Carlock, a science teacher, who mentored and guided her so that she was able to graduate from the school, and go on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology, a masters degree and a doctoral degree in animal science. Temple Grandin was not completely and accurately diagnosed with autism until she was an adult.  Her life's story became well known through her autobiography (Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism) and a movie (Temple Grandin). She has worked extensively with the cattle industry for the humane treatment of animals, specifically the cattle industry, and as a consultant and advocate for people with autism. In addition she has written numerous articles and several books about autism, and continues to do research on the subject. More books and resources by and about Temple Grandin can be found here. In this book she states, “People often confuse visual thinking with vision … visual thinking is not about how we see but about how the brain processes information; how we think and how we perceive.”

There are different kinds of thinkers. There are those who think in patterns and abstractions. There are others who think in pictures--Temple Grandin is one of those individuals.  And, there are visual-spatial thinkers who think in patterns and are a subset of visual thinkers. Temple Grandin very clearly explains the details and differences between these types of thinkers. She emphasizes that there has been, and continues to be more research into different types of thinkers, subsets, and how many people might have variations and combinations of these types of thinking. Her documentation of the research is fascinating. Currently verbal thinking has been favored, but there is a need for the contributions from both verbal and visual thinkers.

Temple Grandin analyzes how elementary and secondary education systems have created an uneven curriculum by emphasizing classes that are predominantly geared for verbal thinkers. Classes in industrial education are no longer, or rarely, taught. Those classes educated and trained people to fix things, e.g., plumbing, electrical repairs, automobile repairs, repair of small and large appliances, and how to develop new new ways to fix things and to create better designs for machinery and other objects. She has discovered that various types of large equipment are manufactured in other parts of the world. When that equipment needs to be repaired and/or breaks down, we do not have people who are trained to do those jobs. In terms of economic growth and in terms of keeping our country competitive, we have been very shortsighted in planning education that includes all types of thinkers.

Temple Grandin states, “When we fail to encourage and develop the talents and skills of people who think in different ways, we fail to integrate ways of learning and thinking that benefit and enrich society. Imagine a world with no artists, industrial designers, or inventors. No electricians, mechanics, plumbers, or builders. These are our visual thinkers, many hiding in plain sight, and we have failed to understand, encourage, or appreciate their specific contributions.”